Inequality Will Resurrect Concorde

There’s a series of posts by Stephen Smith pondering Concorde’s premature death:

@MarketUrbanism: Isn’t it kinda crazy that there used to be regularly-scheduled supersonic passenger flight, but there no longer is?

@MarketUrbanism: Can’t think of any other instance where we made a huge leap in technology like that and then gave it up.

@MarketUrbanism: It’s a shame the Concorde didn’t live to see the rise of Dubai. I bet Emirates could’ve kept it afloat.

It’s a little tragic, really. Almost two decades ago you could travel between New York and London in under three hours. Today that figure is almost three times as high (no help from our friends at the TSA). Concorde had a number of problems, including noise and carbon pollution. These were or could be largely addressed. The chief problem was economic.

Tickets sold at a premium to standard first class, sometimes upwards of $10,000. In fact, the first class market was so thin that Air France (along with British Airways, the airline that flew Concorde) usually booked the flight commercially in only one direction, and chartered the way back to maximize profit. That was the structural issue. However, between a crash on one of the chartered flights and the post-9/11 crash in air traffic, it was clear that this technological marvel wasn’t profitable.

Take a brief history airplanes. The Concorde’s pilot flight was merely weeks after that of another 20th century marvel, the Boeing 747. The heyday of both were the three decades between 1970 and 2000. This was a period that realized huge gains in mass consumer purchasing power, deregulation of the airline industry, and an Anglo-American (upper) middle class ever ready to explore a previously unaffordable world. And the vehicle for this job was the 747.

Of course, inequality was increasing over this period, but not until the 2000s did it reach Gilded Age levels.

And that damned the Concorde. Part of running a luxurious service is consistent demand. The ideal clientele for Concorde is something akin to British Airway’s “Club World London City” – a business class only jet between JFK and Heathrow. And running twice-daily with only 32 seats, it’s as much a disaster to the environment as the Concorde.

But Concorde could never run that frequently, not with that price tag.

The problem wasn’t that Concorde cost between six and ten thousand dollars. It was that the people who could afford that back then, but not a full-time business jet, were too small in number. But what we’ve seen since the ’80s is a rapid growth in an affluent-elite: managing elite at corporations not rich enough to fly privately. More importantly, the affluent-elite have globalized around the world, with incredible (and consistent) demand to fly comfortably to and from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, Mumbai, and other international centers of new wealth.

This is why Etihad has something called a “residence” for its A380 flights between Abu Dhabi and London, priced over $20,000 each way. And if you think this is a little beyond the reach of the standard, top-business elite, look at the boom in “super” business-class arrangements that cost threefold what worked even a decade ago – a world where flatbed seats and French cuisine are considered necessary among a select, exceptionally-disconnected few.

More than anything, this is a reaction to inequality, and increasingly globalized inequality. Of course all these toys of the kinda-but-not-super rich fly on the coattails of a coach flying mass – but as the London City shuttle and massive growth in luxury travel in general tells us, it won’t be long before airlines realize a demand for scaled, exclusive travel. And when that day comes, a newer cousin of Concorde will be waiting.

 

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