This is a tale of two fabled airliners, the Concorde, the world’s first supersonic passenger aircraft, and the Airbus A-380, which can accommodate up to 850 passengers.
Both aircraft have Nevada connections, and both have legacies of great achievement, woe and disappointment.
The Concorde, which went into service on Jan. 21, 1976, could hold up to 128 passengers, cruised at mach 2.35 (twice the speed of sound) or 1,354 miles per hour and created an ear-splitting sonic boom. Powered by four Rolls-Royce engines, the Concorde could fly from London to New York in less that three hours, a flight that normally takes about eight hours on standard commercial jets. All seats were first class, round-trip fares ranged from $13,000 to $17,000 and passengers included Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, television and film stars and wealthy industrialists.
Fourteen Concordes were built for passenger service, and seven each were operated by British Airways and Air France.
As far as the Concorde’s connection to Nevada: Las Vegas casino and hotel executives hoped the aircraft would be put into service there. But it was not about to happen as surveys indicated that passenger revenue would not equal the high cost of flying Concordes into Southern Nevada. Both British Airways and Air France said, “No, we can’t afford to fly the planes to Las Vegas,” and that ended the conversation.
In the mid-1980s, though, a Concorde flew into Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport on a public relations tour. Filling the plane with passengers who paid $985 apiece, the Concorde flew them on a special two-hour flight over the Pacific before returning to McCarran field. And in early May 1993, a Concorde flew into Reno and also took a planeload of passengers over the Pacific.
I have never flown on a Concorde. But in late 2012, while on a trip with my wife, Ludie, to the Caribbean island-nation of Barbados, we discovered a gigantic metal hangar at the edge of the airport in Bridgetown, the county’s capital. A small sign on the building said “Concorde Experience,” and when we entered we were enthralled to see a British Airways Concorde standing before us. We were the only visitors to the Concorde that morning, and after locating a young woman in charge of the airplane, she escorted us aboard via a steep ramp into the passenger compartment.
When we entered the Concorde, which had delta-shaped wings and a long needle-like nose. we saw that the tube-like passenger compartment had a low ceiling and appeared to be cramped, but it had luxurious leather seats in rows of only two. All passengers aboard the Concordes were offered complimentary champagne, caviar, fine wines and food cooked by on-board chefs that was served on expensive china. We also visited the pilot’s compartment where we inspected its massive array of dials and gauges. This was truly an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime experience we will never forget!
Why had this Concorde become a Barbados museum piece? The Concordes after being put into service soon began losing money for British Airways and Air France as they became too expensive to operate for a profit. But their fates were sealed on July 25, 2000, when an Air France Concorde, which had taken off from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris bound for New York, caught fire and crashed into a small hotel 10 miles from the airport, killing all 109 aboard and four on the ground. The tragedy occurred when a small titanium strip that had fallen from a Continental Airlines DC-10, which had taken off just minutes before the Concorde left the field, punctured one of the Concorde’s tires. Pieces of the tire penetrated the Concorde’s fuel tank, the plane’s engines caught fire, and the Concorde plunged to the ground.
Although the accident could not be blamed on the Concorde, terrible international publicity related to the crash plus the continuing high expenses to operate the aircraft caused all the Concordes to be permanently taken out of service by the two airlines three years later. The Concorde Ludie and I visited in Barbados, three Concordes that were flown to U.S. aircraft museums in Chantilly, Virginia (outside Washington, DC), New York City and Seattle, and other museums abroad are the only Concordes in existence today.
As for the four-engine, double-deck Airbus A-380: It met its fate just last week when its European parent company announced that construction of this largest-ever commercial passenger jet will end in early 2021. A total of 234 Airbuses have been built since the aircraft came into service in 2000, and its demise came about after its prime airline customers said they were switching to smaller, more fuel-efficient two-engine aircraft that are easier to fill with passengers. There also is another reason why the Airbus A-380 is losing money: It is so huge and carries so many passengers that airports have had to make expensive modifications to accommodate the aircraft by enlarging their runways, terminals and passenger gates. As a result, some airports have refused to make these modifications.
This is where the Airbus Nevada connection comes in. Las Vegas airport officials in mid-2006 announced that they would not pay for the modifications at McCarran field which were estimated to cost $1.6 billion. So the welcome mat for the Airbus was withdrawn from Las Vegas, which has one of the nation’s busiest commercial airports. There never was talk about entering the airplane into service at Reno-Tahoe International Airport because it is a comparatively small, mostly regional operation when compared to the Las Vegas and other major U.S. airports.
Today, however, there is service to Reno by the smaller, two-engine Airbus 320. Frontier Airlines flies the 320 between Reno and Denver and Jet Blue Airlines flies the aircraft between Reno and Long Beach, Calif.
On a final note relating to the Concorde: An organization of former Concorde pilots, passengers and aviation enthusiasts says it has raised several millions of dollars to renovate one of the remaining 13 Concordes and fly it on world-wide charter flights. But nothing so far has come of this effort.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.