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Is Supersonic Air Travel Making a Comeback?

Twenty years after the last flight of Concorde, a host of start-ups are betting on a new golden age of supersonic air travel. But some of the same challenges remain

We once had supersonic air travel—and then we didn’t. The last flight of the sleek “beautiful bird,” as Concorde was known to its admirers, took place in 2003. That was the end of more than two decades of flying at twice the speed of sound, with passengers paying a premium to be served caviar and champagne while crossing the Atlantic Ocean in just three hours.

Concorde (calling it “the Concorde” was a sign you’d never flown it) was promoted as the aircraft that would halve the size of the world, bringing Tokyo within seven hours of Paris and making New York to London a day trip. But the plane turned into an expensive and unrealized dream for France and the U.K., which signed a treaty in 1962 to collaborate on the development of the project. Only 20 aircraft were built, including six prototypes and developmental models. Concorde certainly captured the world’s attention, though, with 74 options placed by airlines including Pan Am, Continental, TWA, American Airlines, Eastern, United and Braniff, as well as Qantas, Air India, Air Canada and Lufthansa. But not a single airline ultimately bought the plane, and the British and French governments were compelled to subsidize its use on their flag carriers.

Supersonic passenger service began on January 21, 1976. Among the initial flights were a British Airways one from London to Bahrain and an Air France from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. Eventually Concorde flights settled into a pattern of commercial service over the Atlantic—between JFK and Dulles in the U.S. and Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle airports in Europe. Because of the sonic boom it created, Concorde was only allowed to fly subsonically over land, which limited its route choices.

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