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The Flight of the Concorde: An Analysis

As with all labors of love, this is one we will just have to sit back and watch while the players maneuver. As a frequent traveler myself, I like the idea of the Concorde flying again. And landing. Safely.
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If you blinked, you may have missed it: Back in September 2015, there was travel buzz in the travel biz that the famously fast Concorde may take to the skies after being grounded in 2003. The story, first reported in the Telegraph, out of the UK, noted that a group of well-monied enthusiasts, the self-proclaimed "Club Concorde," raised a whopping £120 million ($186 million) to get one of the supersonic jets back in the air.

And that, it seems, was that. The story poofed into the air -- unlike the planes, which remain firmly on the ground. So what (has) happened?

Here's some of the backstory. While the Concorde was one of the safest vehicles in the sky, a reputation-killing crash in Paris of Concorde 4590 in 2000 killed everyone on board and 4 people on the ground. It was later determined that debris on the Charles de Gaulle runway left from another plane had flung up into the Concorde fuselage and caused the perfect example of Murphy's Law of Worst-Case Scenarios, precipitating one of the most deadly, and widely-reported, crashes of year. With the air travel slump that followed 9/11 in the following year, the Concorde, a joint venture between British Aircraft Corporation and France's Aerospatiale, could not generate enough revenue to stay in the sky. The remaining planes were decommissioned and became stately curiosities at the world's airflight museums.

In a brief on the Club Concorde website, president Paul James stated, "The main obstacle to any Concorde project to date has been 'Where's the money?'; a question we heard ad nauseam, until we found an investor. Now that money is no longer the problem, it's over to those who can help us make it happen."

That is an oblique reference to regulators and the minefield surrounding trying to get a mothballed airplane back into commercial service (it is not impossible, but talk about an uphill climb). While Club Concorde publicly stated it wants to get a Concorde in the air by 2019, the fact remains is that all of the Concordes are aging museum pieces. While they have been maintained as exhibitions, it has been years since a qualified flight inspector gave them even a cursory go-over for flight. There are legitimate concerns about the structural integrity of the planes that remain, the one on display at Le Bourget airport in particular (the one Club Concorde wants to purchase).

And let's be honest: there is no lead-time that government bureaucracy cannot swallow whole. All sorts of things have been held up for years due to safety concerns before they (if they) ever get to the market. Even if the Concorde does fly, 2019 might be a wildly optimistic date.

There is also the question of economic viability. Even if Club Concorde succeeds, they still have to fuel the plane, maintain it, house it, insure it, hire a crew, and have all the other tedious background business deals that make our world go 'round be finalized.

And now for the real kicker: Do enough people even want the Concorde back, outside of a few fans, for the idea to fly? For their part, former operators Air France and British Air have shown no interest in a Concorde project, and once upon a time were almost freakishly committed that no one else should be, either. Even if venture capital is secured, future profitability is real a question for any business endeavour. The Concorde was always synonymous with elite travel, but with the advent of the A380 and Dreamliner, passengers are clearly favoring conventional luxury over, and I am sorry to say it, novelty -- however upper class or speedy it may be.

Additionally, and even in its heyday, the Concorde had limitations and it all has to do with physics. First off, its aerodynamic sleekness meant it was never a particularly roomy plane, and passengers today uniformly cry for space to move about. Secondly, once a vehicle goes faster than the speed of sound, it creates a sonic boom powerful to break windows, to say nothing of eardrums. Consequently, the jet could only fly over vast, empty expanses of water. This is fine for transatlantic flights, but once over land, the Concorde has to slow down to conventional speeds. That defeats the whole purpose of a supersonic jet. Nerds the world over, including at NASA, are actively working on trying to lessen the booms, but such are an inevitable fact of anything going that fast in the atmosphere.

All of this is not to say that Club Concorde is not on to something. For all its ear-splitting downsides, no one is discounting supersonic travel. Indeed, France's Airbus filed patents for an aircraft capable of hitting four times the speed of sound last August. That velocity would whisk passengers from from Heathrow to JFK in an hour as opposed to the the subsonic five.

Club Concorde's James seems to be aware of that, and keeps his aims modest. After restoration, the plane would be used at air shows, special events and, most importantly, private charter, he said. A modern twist on keeping the Concorde "in the family," perhaps.

Alas, after generating a lot of initial chatter, Club Concorde has been mute on any progress made, and on the Get Concorde Flying Again Facebook page, even die-hard fans are skeptical, dismissing the whole affair as romantic fluff. To be fair, even on a fast-track, nothing major would happen in just two months time.

As with all labors of love, this is one we will just have to sit back and watch while the players maneuver. As a frequent traveler myself, I like the idea of the Concorde flying again. And landing. Safely.