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What does the rise and fall of Concorde teach us about Product Management?

One rainy weekend in early spring, we visited Aerospace Bristol. A massive warehouse full of interactive aviation exhibits, large enough to let the kids run wild.

After a break for coffee and hot chocolates and a short run across the disused runway, we arrived at the ‘main event’, the building where ‘The Last Concorde’ lives.

Excitedly and full of pride, we relay to the children all the amazing facts about its history. After a while, with puzzled faces, the question arises: ‘mummy, why is it not flying anymore’?

As we explain the economic landscape which brought Concorde to its end, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with my Product Management experience. I found myself explaining how it could have gone better or how it should never have been built in the first place.

Why was Concorde built?

It’s the first question we ask ourselves as Product Managers: WHY? Why are we doing this? What real-world problem are we solving?

As far as I can tell, Concorde was built because we could. The idea was born in the ’50s, the space age when everything seemed possible. Put a man on the moon you say? Sure! In these post-war years, we were full of bold enthusiasm, spurred on by a generation who had been through two world wars, so why not — life’s short.

Whilst the US and Russia battled it out in the space race, over in Europe, we decided to crack supersonic travel. But why? To solve aviation operational efficiency? Less time in the air, less fuel consumption, right? Wrong. Concorde was renowned for many things, but fuel efficiency was not one of them. Based on a New York to Paris flight, Concorde used four times as much fuel as the 747. Meanwhile, Pan Am focused on solving this exact problem, working with Boeing to develop the first ‘jumbo jet’. They could reduce their seat cost by 30% with greater passenger capacity.

Why did Concorde fail?

Supersonic flight is a technology looking for a problem to solve, much like augmented reality (AR) glasses. There was just no reason for the general public to buy a seat on Concorde, especially at such a high price point.

The limitations of the technology of the day meant that Concorde was fast but noisy and thirsty. Operating costs elevated ticket prices to such an extent that the general public chose the slower — but frankly more comfortable — jumbo jets, which became our everyday experience.

Even if we can imagine a future where supersonic travel is the norm, the technology can’t quite deliver it yet. New kids on the block, like the Boom Jet, are working to lower operating costs thanks to engine advancements and lighter fuselages. Progress on zero carbon emission and sustainable aviation fuel will also reduce the environmental impact of air travel.

What value did Concorde deliver?

Concorde was ahead of its time, achieving many firsts which have become the backbone of modern aviation systems. The healthcare industry used it to fly live human organs for transplant and, on one occasion, a rare snake bite serum to Africa for emergency treatment, giving us glimpses of the real-world problems supersonic travel could solve.

Although the British and French governments never made back their huge investments, the airlines that operated them did. British Airways and Air France both had the kind of clientele willing to pay for the experience. But, whilst the planes were grounded in 2003, after Air France’s fatal crash, they noted they could make an even bigger profit by forcing these same passengers to fly first class on their much more economically efficient aircraft.

Concorde was a PR dream; British Airways and Air France hosted celebrities, politicians and royalty, generating story after story about this 11-mile-high club. It sparked the public’s imagination and kept the brands at the forefront of public consciousness. If Concorde were still flying today, chances are that our increased focus on the environment would cast a bad light on anyone who flew it.

Concorde was a visionary experiment, a research and development dream. As a commercial enterprise, the economics didn’t work, and as a product, it failed. As Product Managers, we need to care about everything to do with the product.

Start a revolution

As modern-day Product Managers, we should be careful not to build Concorde. Don’t build a niche luxury product for rich people, or a plaything for nerds. Build products that solve real-world problems and change the world forever.