Au Revoir, Concorde

British Airways and Air France said Thursday they will take their Concorde jets out of service later this year, ending more than a quarter century of supersonic commercial travel.

Both airlines blamed falling passenger demand and rising maintenance costs for their decision to ground the needle-nosed jets that epitomized the economic and technological confidence of an earlier era.

The retirement of the service "will be permanent as of October this year," BA spokeswoman Sara John said. The carrier didn't give a date for its last scheduled flight.

Air France, the only other airline to fly Concorde, said its last scheduled flight would be on May 31, and the program would shut down at the end of October.

"It's a sad day in many ways, but we've decided to retire our Concorde fleet in October this year," BA's chief executive, Rod Eddington, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "If you're laying people off and telling people in your business to tighten your belt, senior executives then find it inconsistent to go to the airport and get on Concorde rather than subsonic aircraft."

"This decision is motivated by deteriorating economic results ... observed over the past months and which accelerated since the beginning of the year," Air France said in a statement.

Eddington said the decision to retire Concorde after 27 years of commercial service was not connected to possible safety fears arising from a crash outside Paris that killed 113 people in 2000.

"We have complete safety at Concorde, complete confidence in its ability to fly safely," he said.

On July 25, 2000, an Air France jet, spewing flames, crashed into a hotel outside Paris just minutes after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport. All 100 passengers, mostly German tourists, were killed along with the nine crew members and four people on the ground.

BA suspended its Concorde service several weeks after the crash. Both airlines reintroduced supersonic flights in November 2001.

Concorde first flew in March 1969 and entered commercial service with British Airways in January 1976. More than 2.5 million passengers have since flown on BA's supersonic jets.

The plane was a commercial failure, partly because no country would permit it to fly over land because of loud engines, and partly because the fuel-guzzling Concorde carries just 100 passengers, making it less economical than a jumbo jet. Only 20 were built, with 12 remaining in service.

But the delta-winged, needle-nosed plane conferred matchless prestige on British Airways and Air France, drawing celebrities and business people who thought their time was valuable enough to justify fares of more than 6,000 pounds ($8,700) for a round trip across the Atlantic.

The Concorde flies faster than any other commercial aircraft, racing between Europe and New York in under four hours. Its fastest New York-London crossing was completed in just 2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

Key events in the history of the Concorde:
  • Nov. 29, 1962: The French and British governments sign agreement to develop prototypes for a supersonic transport aircraft, eventually dubbed Concorde. Aerospatiale of France and the British Aircraft Corporation Ltd. - later known as British Aerospace PLC - sign a similar pact the same day.
  • December 1967: The first test version, Concorde 001, is unveiled by Aerospatiale.
  • March 2, 1969: First test flight from Toulouse to Le Bourget in France.
  • April 9, 1969: British prototype, Concorde 002, makes first test flight.
  • Dec. 3, 1973: The first commercial-production Concorde flies its maiden voyage.
  • Jan. 21, 1976: First Concorde passenger flights: a British Airways Concorde travels from London to Bahrain, while Air France goes from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
  • May 24, 1976: British Airways and Air France launch Concorde service to Washington from London and Paris.
  • Oct. 17, 1977: The U.S. Supreme Court overrules a New York Port Authority ban on Concorde flights in New York area; regular service to and from New York begins later that year.
  • Oct. 8, 1998: A large piece of a Concorde's rudder falls off during a flight from London to New York. The plane lands safely.
  • July 23, 2000: British Airways discloses that cracks had been found in the wings of all seven of its Concorde jets. Air France makes a similar disclosure the following day, having found cracks in four of its six Concordes.
  • July 25, 2000: An Air France Concorde en route to New York crashes outside Paris shortly after takeoff, killing all 109 people on board and four people on the ground. All Air France Concordes are grounded.
  • Aug. 4, 2000: French authorities find strip of metal on runway which did not belong to departing Concorde.
  • Aug. 10, 2000: French says metal strip apparently damaged tire, and debris punctured fuel tank of Concorde, starting fire.
  • Aug. 15, 2000: British Airways suspends Concorde operations after learning that British and French officials intended to revoke the plane's airworthiness certification.
  • Aug. 16, 2000: British authorities say burst tire was primary cause of disaster.
  • Sept. 4, 2000: Metal strip probably came from Continental Airlines plane, French say.
  • Nov. 7, 2001: British Airways and Air France resume Concorde service to New York after reinforcing fuel tanks and installing improved tires.
  • Nov. 5, 2002: Engine failure on Air France Concorde forces rapid descent over Atlantic but plane lands safely in Paris
  • Feb. 27: Air France Concorde loses two pieces of its rudder over Atlantic but lands safely in New York.
  • April 10: Air France, British Airways announce that the Concorde will be grounded at the end of October.

    By Michael McDonough

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