BA should call Branson’s bluff

Concorde has always been a symbol of UK engineering prowess. How unfortunate then that it should end its active service as a byword for spite, bitterness and public relations stunts in the airline industry. George Coupe reports.

Concorde has always been a symbol of UK engineering prowess. How unfortunate then that it should end its active service as a byword for spite, bitterness and public relations stunts in the airline industry.

Many will be deeply saddened that the most majestic aircraft that ever flew will not be granted a dignified retirement. Good engineers and true are asking themselves in bewilderment how Concorde ever came to be a pawn in the ugly squabble between British Airways and Virgin.

Emotions on all sides are running high. But then that is the problem with Concorde – that is what it does to people.

A few months ago The Engineer published a letter from a reader who called for Concorde to be scrapped. His argument was that the supersonic passenger jet is an anachronism at a time when airlines, aircraft builders and engine makers are concentrating on sustainability. Following September 11 and mounting pressure on the industry to cut noise and emissions and improve efficiency, we should not be distracted, he said, by the fate of Concorde, a bird that sacrificed all such considerations to speed and convenience.

His comments produced a howl of protest from other readers. He was clearly in a minority. Most of you agreed that Concorde was an inspiration to all – especially the new generation of engineers – and should be preserved in some flying form for that reason alone. It is interesting that engineers, perhaps the most pragmatic people in our society, felt so deeply about the issue. Clearly most were willing to ignore the commercial realities of life, and of the airline business in particular.

But then Concorde never was a viable commercial proposition. It was a flag-waving exercise from start to finish. It was also an experiment in progress. Despite its age, Concorde is not considered a mature aircraft; Airbus has a whole team of engineers still dedicated to the project. While Airbus might want to put them to other uses there are plenty of people in the industry who want to have a crack at keeping Concorde in the air. Economics is simply not a good enough reason to consign this bird in particular to a museum. (Air France has already sent its aircraft to museums.)

The Virgin bid has attracted interest from many individual engineers and corporate bodies, which it claims includes the likes of Rolls-Royce and the CAA. Whether it is genuine or a public relations stunt, BA should call Mr Branson’s bluff and let him have the planes. It is accepted that the costs are huge, but if Virgin reckons it can keep five Concordes flying then it should be given the opportunity to fail.

Serious or not, proposals for a charitable trust that would take charge of Concorde are not such a bad idea either. UK aerospace engineers are capable of things that no others in the world (including the US) are willing even to attempt – the Rolls-Royce lift fan for the JSF being one example.

In the past this tradition was embodied in the Spitfire, whose unmistakable sound and silhouette can still be seen and heard in our skies today. Concorde has a similar resonance for the modern era. It is the fastest, the loudest and the most beautiful, and it is ours. It would be a nonsense if Spitfires were still flying after the last Concorde had been wheeled into a museum.