France, Britain announce plans to jettison Concorde

Friday, April 11, 2003

LONDON -- The supersonic jet set has been bumped. The Concorde, the needle-nosed aircraft for the rich, is retiring after a quarter-century of ostentatiously expensive service.

Thursday's decision by British Airways and Air France means the end of an era in aviation. The Concorde is the world's only supersonic passenger jet. Only 20 were built, with 12 remaining in service, all operated by the two companies.

"Never has such a beautiful object been designed and built by man," said Air France President Jean-Cyril Spinetta at a news conference.

"This aircraft is not going to stop because it continues to live on in the human imagination."

When it made its debut in 1976, the Concorde aspired to be the future of the aviation industry. But it was never a commercial success. In recent years it has struggled even more due to the global economic downturn, the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks on air travel, and a horrific crash in July 2000 that severely tarnished the plane's safety record.

Beverly Shenstone, technical director of British Overseas Airways Corp., predecessor of British Airways, once called Concorde "the largest, most expensive and most dubious project ever undertaken in the development of civil aircraft."

No country would permit it to fly over land at supersonic speeds because of loud engines, curbing its versatility.

And because the fuel-guzzling Concorde carries just 100 passengers, it's less economical than a jumbo jet.

It was a spectacularly wrong turn by Europe's aerospace industry, which went for speed while allowing Boeing and other American manufacturers to dominate the lucrative market for the big subsonic jets that have made air travel a mass phenomenon.

Nonetheless, the Concorde conferred unmatched prestige on British Airways and Air France, and the glamour of a glitzy passenger list that included Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna and Queen Elizabeth II.

For a quarter century, business executives and stars asserted their status by boarding the delta-winged marvel, a product of 1960s technology and optimism, happily spending thousands more dollars to save a few hours.

"Flying at twice the speed of sound gives you a buzz," rock star Sting, a regular flyer for two decades, once said. "I'm still excited about going on Concorde even after all these years."

The speedy Concorde flies from Europe to New York in under four hours. Its fastest crossing was completed in just 2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

Celebrity antics on the supersonic jets are guaranteed to make headlines. Motown diva Diana Ross was led off a Concorde by police at London's Heathrow Airport in 1999 after an altercation with a security guard.

That same year, Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein was fined $320 after being caught smoking in a Concorde toilet. In a letter to the court, Weinstein said he was "an extremely nervous traveler."

Air France blamed the Concorde's demise on falling passenger revenue and rising maintenance costs but it was the crash in Paris on July 25, 2000, that probably sealed its fate.

An Air France Concorde slammed into a hotel minutes after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport, killing 113 people, mostly German tourists on board.

Investigators concluded that a stray bit of metal punctured one of Concorde's tires, propelling pieces of rubber into the fuel tank and igniting a fire.

Air France and British Airways grounded their fleets and revamped the planes to address safety concerns. The luxury aircraft was returned to service in November 2001.

Since then, there have been several small but well-publicized mishaps, both with Concordes owned by British Airways and Air France. Spinetta said Concorde was filling 60-70 percent of its seats right after flights resumed, but that has since dropped to 20 percent.

British Airways chief executive, Rod Eddington, said passengers were no longer willing to pay the $9,300 regular fare for a round trip across the Atlantic in supersonic time.

"With its going, we must lose some of the romance from aviation," Eddington said. "Concorde looked fantastic. You cannot lose such an aircraft without shedding a tear."

British Airways said its seven Concordes would stop flying at the end of October, but didn't give a date for the last scheduled flight. Air France, with five Concordes, announced its supersonic flights would end by May 31.

"I have no doubt there will be, at some point in time, the son of Concorde," Eddington said. "I don't know when it will be."

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