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Amid Pride and Sadness, Concorde Lands for Good

October 25, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — Landing with the trajectory of ducks alighting on a pond, three British Airways Concorde supersonic jets touched down at Heathrow Airport for the final time Friday, leaving a swell of pride, sadness and much recrimination in their wake.

The planes landed within five minutes of one another before a grandstand of 1,000 aviation enthusiasts and thousands of the simply curious.

The flights marked the end of 27 years of faster-than-sound commercial air travel that brought London within three hours of New York -- at least for the well-heeled.

With the Concorde grounded for good, the global jet-set will now have to cross the Atlantic at relatively plodding speeds in the mere hundreds of miles an hour.

"There was a party going on as we took off from New York, but there was a definite shift in mood as we got over Britain, and everybody actually seemed quite cross toward the end," said British television personality Jeremy Clarkson who was on the final flight. He spoke by cell phone from his seat as the plane taxied into retirement.

"There was a sense that Concorde was the last decent thing we ever did in this country. And now we don't even have it anymore," he said.

The Concorde captured imaginations worldwide with its unmistakable beaked-nose profile and its ability to fly at more than twice the speed of sound. Dreamed up by French and British aviation designers in the 1950s, its first prototype built in the '60s, the plane is still regarded as a technological marvel and speed merchant without peer in modern commercial aviation.

Yet its business plan never matched the engineering blueprint.

Both British Airways and Air France -- the only carriers with Concordes in their fleet -- cited rising maintenance costs and shrinking passenger numbers for the decision announced this year to ground their supersonic planes.

The airline industry is struggling to fill seats in general, especially the big, comfy leather ones in first-class cabins.

Both airlines said demand for the Concorde, on which a round-trip ticket from London to New York typically cost about $14,000, has sputtered, even among celebrities.

Among the famous on the final flight from New York -- the last of the three Concordes to touch down -- were broadcaster David Frost, actress Joan Collins, supermodel Christie Brinkley, ballerina Darcey Bussell and Formula One racing mogul Bernie Ecclestone.

Air France stopped its service in May, citing unsustainable losses on its routes.

"Technically it's a great plane, but as an economic model it was a failure," said Rigas Doganis, the former chairman and chief executive of Greece's Olympic Airways and now a professor of airline economics and author based in London.

"The mentality of the business passenger has changed. Speed became less critical, and the time-saving on the Concorde was not enough to justify asking people to pay the much higher costs for a seat," Doganis said.

The Concorde's fate was also darkened by the crash of one of its Air France jets in July 2000, which killed 113 people. That crash was caused by external factors: The supersonic plane struck a piece of metal debris on the runway that had fallen from another plane. Both carriers had to ground their Concorde fleets for more than year while the planes were checked and overhauled.

When the Concorde returned to the skies in 2001, it flew into the head wind of a global economic slowdown and lingering jitters from the Sept. 11 attacks. The decision to pull the planes from service was also influenced by the need for major maintenance work on the aging aircraft due over the next five years.

And Airbus, the company that services the Concorde, told the airlines it planned to get out of the business at the end of 2003.

Despite those economic barriers to keeping the Concorde flying, critics accuse British Airways of succumbing to accounting over mystique. They contend that the airline is grounding the Concorde so it can redirect its premium customers into undersubscribed first-class cabins on its subsonic passenger jets.

And many are enraged that British Airways won't sell some of its Concordes -- planes designed and built with British and French taxpayers' money -- to someone willing to keep the supersonic jet flying.

They even have the particular someone in mind: Richard Branson, the wealthy British entrepreneur who owns Virgin Atlantic airlines. He has offered British Airways nearly $8.5 million for five of its Concordes. "This plane was paid for by the British public, and it is not British Airways that should have the right to make the decision to retire it," Branson said in an interview.

Branson said his company would assume the Concorde maintenance costs and contended that he would make a profit flying just three routes out of London: to New York, Barbados and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

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