The Concorde was no ordinary aircraft, and its steady record of failure over the last 20 years was no minor disappointment for the European engineers, bureaucrats and financiers who created it. At the start it looked to everyone like a glowing emblem of the future, but it turned rather quickly into an artifact of the past. Long before the terrible fireball accident near Charles de Gaulle airport yesterday, the Concorde was on the way out. It was staging a slow and graceless exit from the world's imagination.
This was not what anyone expected. The Concorde should have worked, superbly. After all, the aircraft engineers of Britain and France poured every last ounce of their talent into it. And after it took flight in 1976, it appeared to be the most advanced piece of design in the world, a thrilling statement of what advanced industry and advanced research could accomplish. It was to be the stirring climax of the century of speed, and it even seemed to be a step on the way to space travel. Soaring above the cities at 2,207 kilometres an hour, its beak twisted oddly downward like that of a prehistoric bird, it seemed both an echo of the distant past and a promise of future triumphs. In a sense it was the great European project of the space era. In 1969, the same year the Americans put a man on the moon, when it appeared that the U.S. and the USSR would share domination of aerospace industries, Britain and France buckled down to the research and development job that culminated seven years later in the Concorde's first commercial flights. A whole generation of European ambition and talent lay behind the Concorde when finally it went into service.
But as a symbol, the Concorde never took off. Somehow, travel on the Concorde became passé without ever quite becoming fashionable. In the 1980s it stood vaguely for expensive glamour, but Concorde never became a word in the language denoting high-priced quality, like Tiffany; the planes themselves never acquired the chic of, for instance, the old ocean liners. After a while they evoked instead memories of the Edsel, an elaborately designed car of 1958 that became the worst failure in Ford's history.
The really rich, it turned out, wanted their own jet planes, so they could write their own schedules. The merely well-off never saw any great merit in the difference, London-New York, between three hours and six hours.
The Concorde was supposed to be the globe-circling aircraft for the affluent, but the more ambitious flights lost large sums of money, like the Paris-Rio de Janeiro route that Air France started in 1976 but abandoned in 1982.
In recent years the Concorde has done little but connect Paris and London with New York.
No one denied that its day was ending. British Airways has been planning to withdraw the planes from service in the next 15 to 20 years; Air France has been saying they will be in use "at least until 2017."
The Concorde was never an economic triumph. The airlines couldn't charge enough for the seats to pay the costs of building, flying and maintaining the aircraft. There were 13 of them in the air until yesterday and no one was arguing that more should be built. In fact, the Concorde's reputation had become the reverse of what its builders had originally imagined: Just 12 days ago, a story in The New York Times on the A3XX, the double-decker jumbo jet that European Airbus Industrie group will soon introduce, said that the people in charge of it were praying it wouldn't be "another white elephant like the Concorde."
British Airways revealed recently that microscopic cracks had been detected in the wings of all seven of its Concordes. Yesterday afternoon, the airline announced the suspension of last night's Concorde flights between Heathrow and New York. Perhaps the end of the Concorde was coming even faster than the worst pessimists had predicted.