Why did the commercial supersonic flights ended with Concorde?

The Concorde had its last commercial flight exactly 20 years ago, on October 24, 2003. This supersonic aircraft was known for its speed but also for its high operational costs, including fuel expenses, which contributed to its economic challenges and eventual retirement from commercial service.

Oct 24, 2023 - 11:56
Why did the commercial supersonic flights ended with Concorde?
Image by Spaceaero2/Wikipedia

The Concorde, a supersonic passenger airliner, made its first flight on March 2, 1969. It was a joint project between British and French aerospace companies, and the first prototype to fly was the British-built Concorde 002.

The last commercial Concorde flight took place on October 24, 2003. It was operated by Air France and marked the retirement of the Concorde from commercial service. British Airways, the other major operator of the Concorde, had its last commercial Concorde flight on October 24, 2003, as well.

The decision to retire the Concorde was primarily due to economic factors and a declining number of passengers, as well as concerns following the tragic crash of an Air France Concorde in July 2000. This crash raised safety concerns and had a significant impact on the Concorde's operational future.

There has been a lack of supersonic commercial projects in the years following the retirement of the Concorde for several reasons:

  • High Operating Costs: The Concorde was an expensive aircraft to operate. It consumed a significant amount of fuel (approximately 5.3 to 5.5 tons of fuel per hour while cruising at supersonic speeds) and had high maintenance costs, which made it economically challenging for airlines to operate profitably. The high operating costs were a major factor in the decision to retire the Concorde.

  • Environmental Concerns: Supersonic flight generates sonic booms, which can be disruptive and have led to regulations limiting overland supersonic flights. There were also concerns about the environmental impact of supersonic aviation, such as increased emissions and noise pollution.

  • Technological Challenges: Developing a supersonic commercial aircraft that is economically viable and environmentally friendly is a complex engineering challenge. Advances in materials and propulsion technology are needed to create a more efficient and quieter supersonic aircraft.

  • Market Demand: While there is undoubtedly interest in supersonic travel, it's unclear if there is a sufficiently large market to support the development and operation of a new supersonic commercial aircraft. Many travelers are more cost-conscious, and subsonic aircraft have become more fuel-efficient and comfortable over the years.

Despite these challenges, there has been renewed interest in supersonic travel in recent years. Several companies are working on developing new supersonic or "super-cruise" (slightly below supersonic) commercial aircraft. These projects aim to address some of the economic, environmental, and technological challenges that hindered the Concorde. However, it will take time to bring these concepts to the market, and regulatory and environmental considerations will play a significant role in their feasibility and success.

There are several projects and companies working on the development of commercial supersonic aircraft. It's important to note that the status of these projects may have evolved since then. Some of the notable projects at that time included:

  • Boom Supersonic: Boom Supersonic, a U.S.-based aerospace company, was working on the Overture, a supersonic airliner designed to carry passengers at speeds of Mach 2.2. They aimed to make supersonic travel more affordable and environmentally sustainable. They had partnerships with multiple airlines and had received orders for their aircraft.

  • Aerion Supersonic: Aerion Supersonic was developing the AS2, a supersonic business jet. While not a commercial airliner, it was designed to transport business travelers at supersonic speeds. They were working on a partnership with Boeing, and their goal was to create an environmentally responsible supersonic aircraft.

  • Virgin Galactic: In addition to their space tourism endeavors, Virgin Galactic announced plans to develop a high-speed commercial aircraft that could travel at supersonic speeds.

  • Hermeus: Hermeus, a U.S.-based startup, was working on a Mach 5 commercial aircraft, which would operate at five times the speed of sound. Their concept was aimed at long-haul international travel.

  • Spike Aerospace: Spike Aerospace was working on the development of the S-512, a supersonic business jet designed for private and business travelers.

The timeline for the return of commercial supersonic flights is subject to several factors, including technological advancements, regulatory approvals, and market demand. We may see the return of commercial supersonic flights in the next decade or two. However, the exact timing remains uncertain and may have evolved since then.

Companies working on supersonic projects are making progress in developing more efficient and environmentally friendly supersonic aircraft. Advancements in materials, aerodynamics, and engine technology are critical for the success of these projects.

Supersonic flight overland is subject to strict regulations, primarily due to concerns about sonic booms and their impact on the environment and communities. Companies will need to work closely with aviation authorities to address these concerns and gain regulatory approval for overland supersonic flights.

There is a growing focus on reducing the environmental impact of aviation. Any new supersonic aircraft will need to meet stringent environmental standards and be quieter and more fuel-efficient.

The success of commercial supersonic flights will depend on the existence of a viable market and sufficient demand. Airlines and passengers need to be willing to invest in and pay for supersonic travel. Developing a new commercial supersonic aircraft is a capital-intensive endeavor. Companies will need significant investment and financing to bring their projects to fruition.

Sha Huan Member of EA Coordination Team