April 25, 2013
Billed as the world’s first supersonic plane that could cut travel times in half, the history of Concorde’s beginning was disappointingly marked by exorbitant costs, design complications and a 1973 oil crisis that saw airlines seeking ways to drastically decrease expenditures. The result was large-scale order cancellations that threatened to cripple production and subsequent success of the project. Making matters worse, public opinion began to sour against the airliner, citing concerns over noise and other environmental issues caused by the jet’s sonic booms. Such voices culminated in a crushing setback for Concorde’s backers as governments around the world, including the United States, banned operation of the plane within their respective airspaces. Knowing the continued existence of Concorde rested on winning international public approval, the airplane’s financiers understood the urgency of getting to work on repairing Concorde’s image.
Concorde creators British Air and Air France placed the airplane’s fate with a public relation's agency, tasking it with reversing the project’s dismal reputation and lifting the bans on airspace entry, particularly in the U.S. where it stood to gain the most lucrative profit. PR experts devised a strategy to gain a foothold in the U.S. by initially focusing efforts on lifting the ban in Washington D.C., a region known to offer less resistance than others. Work began by proactively debunking misconceptions held by Department of Transportation officials and by countering scare tactics that had been intentionally planted with the general public. This approach, aided by efforts to excite D.C. residents over the prospect of a supersonic airline route operating in their city, scored an initial victory for Concorde and secured an 18-month trial at Dulles International Airport. The trial soon calmed initial fears and provided the added bonus of demonstrating Concorde’s benefits to other regions, sowing seeds of envy even with New York City, originally one of the plane’s toughest areas of opposition. Now bent on securing New York’s approval, Concorde’s PR team sought and obtained the backing of the city’s influential business sector, which no doubt appreciated the convenience of flying from New York to London in fewer than four hours. To pacify community noise concerns, the agency had residents compare sound recordings of a Concorde’s takeoff with that of other, subsonic airplanes. Few recognized any significant difference, removing perhaps one of the toughest barriers facing the project’s success.
As the public mood began to shift favorably, so too did political perception and action. President Jimmy Carter, who had originally opposed Concorde’s operation, reached out to PR leaders, asking them to select a suitable candidate to enter into discussions on the plane’s behalf. After meeting with a New York Congressman, the Carter Administration subsequently became one of Concorde’s most influential proponents, lifting the national ban in 1977. Through an intensive public relations effort that overturned staunch opposition, Concorde’s inventors saw their creation go from initial failure, to one of the most iconic planes of the 20th Century, enjoying 23 years of service until its eventual retirement in 2003.
Concorde by Rainier Wong