Farewell to era of supersonic passenger travel as final Concord

Saturday, October 25, 2003

LONDON -- The Concorde bowed out Friday with a spectacular triple-landing finale, closing an era of supersonic passenger travel and leaving the skies to the slower, cheaper jets that proved to be the future of air travel.

Three supersonic planes glided into Heathrow Airport within minutes of one another, a majestic send-off for an aircraft that was a technological marvel but an expensive commercial dud.

Flight 002, the plane's final trans-Atlantic passenger flight from New York, touched down last, at 4:05 p.m., close behind two other British Airways Concordes. One flew from Edinburgh, Scotland, carrying winners of a competition; the other had taken off from Heathrow an hour and a half earlier and whooshed invited guests over the Bay of Biscay at twice the speed of sound.

The jet from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport zoomed 11 crew and 100 passengers, many of them celebrities and aviation enthusiasts, across the Atlantic in about 3 1/2 hours. Passengers sipped champagne and snapped pictures as they flew.

"Concorde was born from dreams, built with vision, and operated with pride," said Capt. Michael Bannister, who was British Airways' chief Concorde pilot and flew the last trans-Atlantic trip.

Not everyone loved the slim, elegant jet.

Over the years, many criticized its enormous roar, heavy fuel use and the pollutants it emitted. In New York, U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner hosted a champagne toast to celebrate Concorde's demise.

But tens of thousands of fans lined the road outside Heathrow to get a final look at the plane that epitomized jet-set glamour.

Julia Zuk, 50, who lives near Heathrow, said she enjoyed her daily glimpses of the elegant jet and didn't mind the noise.

"It's like wearing stilettos," she said. "They hurt your feet, but you know they look a lot sexier than ordinary shoes."

The three jets landed at Heathrow to cheers and applause. The travelers who disembarked onto a red carpet took pictures of the plane and each other, and model Christie Brinkley said fellow passengers cheered when the jet touched down.

"It was very moving, very sad in a way," she said.

The delta-winged plane made a stately final approach west along the Thames, granted a low-altitude flyby for a last look at the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and other sights of central London.

It was a bittersweet end to nearly 28 years of commercial supersonic travel. British Airways and Air France, the only carriers to fly the Concorde, announced in April that they would retire the jets, citing ballooning costs and dwindling ticket sales. Air France grounded its supersonic fleet in May.

The last British Airways flight for paying passengers was from London to New York on Thursday. Friday's New York-London travelers flew for free.

The airline plans to announce next week where its fleet of seven Concordes will be kept. It has said most will likely go to museums, but it is looking into the possibility of keeping one in flying shape for occasional special events.

British media have reported one Concorde may fly to the United States on Dec. 17 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first manned and powered flight.

In June, Air France donated one of its planes to the new branch of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, under construction at Washington's Dulles International Airport.

Passengers on the final flight from New York included broadcaster Sir David Frost, actress Joan Collins, Brinkley, ballerina Darcy Bussell and Formula One racing mogul Bernie Ecclestone.

On a Heathrow-Edinburgh flight earlier Friday, Rupert Pilgrim, an Internet worker from Amersham, west of London, proposed to his girlfriend Catherine Murray when the aircraft reached its top speed over the North Sea.

Trays of poached salmon and champagne prevented him from getting down on one knee. Nonetheless, Murray said, "He chose a good moment."

The Concorde, conceived and built by the British and French governments, began commercial service in January 1976. It was hailed as a technological marvel but its economics were shaky and it never made back the billions of tax dollars invested in it.

Airlines had little interest in such expensive, fuel-guzzling jets. The Concorde's limited range, and rules that forbade it from setting off sonic booms over land meant it mostly stuck to its trans-Atlantic back-and-forth.

For years it was the favorite form of Europe-to-America travel for celebrities and high-powered executives. Cruising speeds of 1,350 mph meant westbound travelers got to New York more than an hour and a half before they left Europe.

The beginning of the end came when an Air France Concorde crashed after takeoff from Paris on July 25, 2000, killing 113 people and forcing both airlines to ground their supersonic jets for over a year.

Overhauled Concordes returned to service two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in the middle of one of aviation's worst slumps and a miserable global economy.

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