A British Airways plane, free of passengers, traveled from Heathrow to Bristol on November 26, 2003. It was a subsonic final flight for the supersonic Concorde, a quiet end to the life of a plane that once symbolized the future of aviation, only to end up as a niche service to wealthy transatlantic travelers for a mere 27 years.
When supersonic planes were first under development in Europe and Russia, American aviation officials were worried the U.S.-dominated global passenger airline industry would quickly lose market share to its modernizing rivals. Then-FAA director Najeeb Halaby told President John F. Kennedy that if the U.S. did not start its own supersonic transport (SST) program, the country would lose billions. That threat seemed verified after PanAm put in an order for a Concorde in 1963 (as it turned out, the airline never ended up flying one).
Boeing won the U.S. government’s contract to design one, creating the Boeing 2707.
In the 1960s, Braniff International was also interested in the use of supersonic planes. The airline, whose slogan once proclaimed “When you got it- flaunt it,” had dreams of an absurdly fast and efficient era of commercial flight, highlighted in their 1968 vision of what air travel with them would be like in 1975:
But in 1971, Boeing cancelled its development of its 2707, marking an end to America’s flirtation with supersonic flight. Braniff did end up with a Concorde, but only to borrow for its subsonic Dallas to D.C. route, turning the planes back over to Air France and British Airways in time for the next transatlantic flight. Braniff ceased to operate in 1982. No American-based airline ever offered a commercial supersonic flight.
Before the SST program was cancelled, supersonic flight tests over Oklahoma City in 1965 resulted in, according to Time magazine, 9,594 complaints of damage to buildings, 4,629 formal damage claims, and 229 claims for a total of $12,845.32 ($36,059.96 in 2012 dollars), mostly for broken glass and cracked plaster.
Concerns included not just these downsides to sonic booms but damage to the ozone layer, with environmental organizations and academic researchers arguing such flights could hurt the earth’s atmosphere. Supersonic flight over U.S. land was eventually banned, limiting the economic potential of the 2707. Politicians increasingly saw the program as an unfair use of government funds for private projects. Both the Senate and House voted for an end to SST funding in 1971.
The end of the SST project for Boeing added stress to a company already experiencing a downturn in aviation demand, leading to a substantial wave of unemployment in Seattle, exemplified in the iconic billboard that snarked, “Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights.”
The American aviation industry could at least console itself when the former U.S.S.R.’s supersonic Tupolev Tu-144 barely limped into the 1980s, performing poorly throughout its service and leaving behind an incredible list of failures and malfunctions.
The U.S., as it turns out, was better off for missing out on what was a very brief era of aviation history. Seattle diversified its economy for the better after experiencing its aviation-induced bust. And with technological advances that allow passengers to work or be entertained in ways unimaginable to mid-century travelers, the need to get from New York to Paris more quickly ended up being not nearly as necessary as we might have once thought. Certainly not as much as any futuristic, mid-century promotional video may have suggested.