Aviation: Showing Off the Concorde

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The British-French supersonic Concorde 001 took its first trip last week, but the journey was only a matter of a mile at the Sud Aviation plant at Toulouse, France. With front wheels jacked up so that the 38-ft. tail structure could slip through the hangar doors, the graceful goose was towed to a suitable display area where this week some 800 airline officials and members of the press will get a look at the craft. If all goes according to plan, the 191-ft. prototype will take off on its maiden flight on Feb. 28.

For Charles de Gaulle, the flight of the Concorde will be a personal victory. As one observer put it: "The Concorde will get into the air if De Gaulle has to grab it by the tail and throw it up himself." However, financially pressed Britons have shown dwindling enthusiasm for the project.

Construction costs for the delta-wing plane have soared. Without a single sale—and only 74 options now taken —the two countries are spending an estimated $1.4 billion on its development against the original 1962 estimate of $450 million. It is expected that another $500 million will be needed to fill the option orders, and a total of 200 must be sold to recoup a mere one-third of the development costs.

Meanwhile, the airlines have watched the Concorde price tag rise from the original estimate of $7,000,000 to $21 million per plane, including spare parts. Option signers have deposited about $300,000 for future delivery.

Bigger & Faster. The Concorde's backers hope that once the plane is in service, it will rack up a big percentage of the market before being challenged by the U.S. supersonic transport due aloft in the mid-'70s. Roomier than the Concorde (292 passengers v. 132) and faster (1,800 v. 1,450 m.p.h.), the Boeing 2707 has already attracted 125 options from 26 interested airlines. While the British and French admit that the American SST will eventually dominate the North Atlantic—currently accounting for 42% of all international air travel—they argue that there will be plenty of room for their smaller plane on less traveled routes, such as London-Sydney and Paris-Buenos Aires. A potential challenge on these routes, however, may come from the Russians, who have recently become aggressive in selling their aircraft; their 120-passenger supersonic TU-144 may be airborne even before the British-French craft.

Breaking the Barrier. Myriad technicalities still face the Concorde—and eventually the SST—before it can go into commercial competition. One big potential stumbling block is the fact that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration must pass on the plane—and should it find the Concorde not air worthy, the French would surely complain that the FAA was dragging its feet to let the Boeing model catch up. The FAA is particularly wary of the fuel and noise problems. Four powerful Olympus engines consume great quantities of jet fuel, requiring reserves that will add weight and cut down on income. Just how much fuel will be need ed—and can be carried—remains the question.

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