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Concorde and project viability. . . flawed from the very first take-off

Apparently Concorde uses more oxygen during take-off than the entire Swiss nation breathes in a year and now, coinciding with Victoria Beckham's adverse comments on safety, the prospect of regularly consuming 32,000 gallons of fuel to fly a mere 18 people to New York - as happened again recently on a British Airways scheduled flight - becomes both a reality and a matter of national shame.

That's some 1,800 gallons per person!

(A fully loaded Airbus uses around 41 gallons per head for the same journey. ) Requiring 90 tonnes of fuel against a plane weight of 70 tonnes and a payload (including passengers) of just 10 tonnes, Concorde was a flawed and financially disastrous concept from the start. Indeed, the extraordinary thing is not that one has crashed but that any ever flew in the first place. The project should never have seen the light of day.

By the time the sixteenth and last Concorde left Filton in 1978, the aircraft's total development cost exceeded £2 billion (against the originally estimated £160 million), making it perhaps the costliest commercial blunder in the history of airlines.

The anticipated demand had been for 500 Concordes with investment returned at 150 to 200. In the event, only nine were sold before orders collapsed in 1973, and those went to the captive state airlines of BA and Air France, which initially took five and four respectively.

A further five, though built, remained unsold and two were conveniently 'written off ' after testing.

Not surprisingly, Concorde has been a 'loser' at every turn. With projected sale prices soaring from £10 million to £23 million between 1968 and 1972, and seating a mere 100 people (weighing about 6.9 tonnes), each plane sold at more than twice the cost of a jumbo jet, while operational outlay per passenger mile was sky-high. No wonder the options on 74 planes were quickly cancelled: Concorde was, in commercial terms, as attractive as a dead duck. Indeed, at no stage in its 40-year life - development, production, or operation - has the project ever showed any prospect of delivering a net profit. Brian Trubshaw, its loyal first test pilot, revealed the continuing farce recently when trying to allay fears over safety. Maybe no other aircraft in the world does receive better maintenance but the 56 hours of servicing needed for every hour in flight (eight times more than a Jumbo needs) is merely another measure of Concorde's failure.

Yet, despite being consistently and hopelessly unviable, the project was doomed to realisation from the outset - come what may! The joint development contract between the British and French contained no provision for withdrawal, as the Wilson government discovered when facing the massive damages claim payable to the French if Britain backed out - an indignity that would only have been heightened if the French had used the money to go it alone. Such were the conditions that effectively spawned the world's most exotic failure, and so it is that last month's tragic crash provided the French with the perfect excuse to call this whole disastrous episode to a halt. But they dare not stop, even now, while the British stubbornly struggle on.

The Americans are, of course, far more disciplined about commercial viability, which is why they scrapped their supersonic passenger programme in 1963 and why they have ever since plugged away building the boring, but highly marketable, subsonic planes that have enriched their aircraft industry while the ambitious Concorde all but destroyed ours.

And this is probably why, like it or not, so many British developers choose American architects based in London for their building projects: they are objective, disciplined and effective servers of commerce - as they are trained to be! Commercial practice in Britain has, of course, already learned extensively from the Americans but much progress has yet to be made - particularly in the areas of cost and risk control during design development.

British architectural practices and schools should take careful stock of that fact and remember the old rule - never lose sight of market demand. The people behind Concorde did and look what happened.

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