Flying Concorde Across The Chasm

John W Lewis's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Sep 24, 2015

What innovation lessons can we learn from the history of the Concorde aircraft?

This week, in the UK, the news headlines included the faint prospect of one of these iconic aircraft flying again. For some time a group of people have been working on getting a Concorde aircraft back into the air and have raised substantial funds for the purpose. See: "Concorde fans hope to get jet airborne by 2019".

Any mention of Concorde in the UK (and, it seems, to a lesser extent, in France) evokes memories of an iconic aircraft which was a source of substantial national pride.

Between 1976 and 2003, Concorde flights carried passengers on a variety of other routes, mainly across the Atlantic. When Concorde was withdrawn from service, British Airways and Air France had operated nearly 50,000 Concorde flights carrying about 2.5 million passengers. A major crash in Paris in July 2000 had been the only fatal accident with the aircraft, and the technical lessons from that accident had been applied and the aircraft returned to service in less than a year.

So was this an innovation too far? What lessons can we learn from this?

The retirement of Concorde was a matter of substantial sadness which is difficult to explain. To those who disliked it, including unsuccessful competitors, it might have felt like a relief. But to many people, including me, it felt as though we had stopped moving forwards. Perhaps for the first time in any field, we had gone backwards. It felt like a high water mark in innovation and we wondered whether it would ever be reached again.

Some people think that the Concorde project made a lot of sense in the 1960s and makes no sense now. The truth is that only a number of fortuitous factors, including political ones, tipped the governments of the UK and France into developing Concorde. But it was built and operated for 27 years and, if it weren't a couple of gambles that didn't pay off, it might have represented the future of passenger aviation.

Boeing certainly thought so when it committed most of its development resources to its competitive SST (SuperSonic Transport) program, the 2707. Others agreed, the USA also had the XB-70 Valkyrie supersonic bomber program and the USSR was developing the Tupolev 144, both of which flew. Boeing's commitment was so large that when their SST program was cancelled, it very nearly broke the company. They were saved by the 747 which had been seen as a development of a stopgap passenger aircraft that was expected to end up as a freighter, and yet the Boeing 747 went on to change the world of air travel

Innovation issues

In the 1960s, the reasoning for supersonic passenger aircraft seemed to make some sense. Not long before, in the 1950s, passenger aircraft had doubled in speed as jet powered aircraft replaced piston engined propellor aircraft. Airlines and passengers liked the reduction in jounrney times. So why not double the speed again? Many new military aircraft were supersonic, surely civilian aircraft would follow!

While jet engines had been a major innovation (a discontinuity) in engine design, the resulting increases in speed had been relatively continuous. There had been increases in engine power requirements. But the increases in fuel consumption were offset by increases in engine efficiency and larger aircraft which spread the costs over more passengers.

Overall, further increases in speed made sense.

However, the Concorde was burning a lot more fuel, and carrying fewer passengers (about 100). And then, in the 1970s, the fuel price increased unexpectedly and dramatically. Economically, it was all going in the wrong direction. On the other hand, everything has its price, and there are a small number of people who will pay very high fares for the shorter journey times.

But there was another more important consequence. While those speed increases and reductions in journey times appeared to passengers to be continuous improvements, unfortunately nature has other ideas! Supersonic speeds are beyond a discontinuity set by the speed of sound. It isn't called "sound barrier" for nothing! This "barrier" is a transition into a fundamentally different regime of operation.

Discontinous changes result in discontinuous consequences and new failure modes for products.

All supersonic aircraft (designed so far) emit a sonic boom, a loud bang sound (or actually a pair of bangs) as a result of the shock wave(s) generated by the aircraft. Some people thought this could be minimised by aircraft design, and if the aircraft flew high enough that it might not be heard on the ground. They were wrong and the sonic boom problem was never solved, the USA never gave permission to fly supersonic over land, and at various times other countries (including Malaysia and India) curtailed supersonic flights over land. Concorde's flight at supersonic speeds was largely confined to operation over oceans.

There might have been opportunities to operate subsonic over land and supersonic over oceans, and, indeed, Braniff Airlines did lease a substantial number of Concorde aircraft for a couple of years and operated them between Los Angeles and New York, with ongoing legs to Europe operated by British Airways and Air France.

But in the end, there were too many factors which prevented supersonic passenger aircraft from crossing the chasm and being adopted by the majority of airlines and passengers. But there were only just too many, and it was a close run thing!

Who knows whether we will see it fly again?!


Let's discuss the issues arising from this story during #innochat on Thursday September 24th at 12pm Eastern time, based on these questions:

  1. When can we extrapolate continuous improvements and when can we not?
  2. How can we predict the consequences of discontinuities in the physical environment?
  3. How can organizations minimise the risk of substantial innovative projects?
  4. How can the risk of economic changes and political opposition be factored into innovation decisions?
  5. What part does emotion play in support for innovative products?


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