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A Beautiful Bird Grounded

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Air France Concorde lands at Washington Dulles International Airport on its way to its new home at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

When you visit the Udvar-Hazy Center and see the Air France Concorde on display, it’s hard to believe such a beautiful “bird” is no longer in service. I remember the day it flew into Dulles Airport on its final flight in June 2003, and how modern and elegant it looked as it landed. Once on the ground, it was parked for a while next to the Boeing Stratoliner and the Boeing Dash-80, two of its predecessors from the 1930s and 1950s respectively. The contrast among the three airliners was striking.

The Boeing S-307 Stratoliner, left, the Air France Concorde, center, and the Boeing Dash 80, right, at Washington Dulles International Airport before going on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in 2003.

So why did the supersonic Concorde have to retire? It all boiled down to money.

In January 1976, the Concorde began flying to the United States. The Concorde would cruise at twice the speed of sound between 55,000 and 60,000 feet — so high that passengers could actually see the curvature of the Earth. Transatlantic flight time was half that of conventional jet aircraft, with the average flight taking less than four hours.

Eventually, however, the Concorde became too expensive to operate. For instance, it was only capable of carrying 60 passengers from Paris to Washington, D.C. – 40 shy of its maximum capacity of 100. Furthermore, many of these flights operated at half full, making matters worse. By 2003, Concorde ticket costs averaged around $12,000, and needless to say not many people could afford that!

With an average of one ton of fuel consumed per seat, the already small market for the Concorde gradually grew smaller. Routes were cut back, leaving London to New York and Paris to New York as the only routes. The unfortunate Concorde accident in 2000 added to the aircraft’s problems.

Air France Concorde service ended on May 31, 2003, and British Airways ceased operations on October 24, 2003.

Isn’t it frustrating to think that the technology exists to whisk us across the pond in less than four hours, but no such service is available!

Kathy Hanser is a Writer-Editor in the Office of Communications at the National Air and Space Museum.

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