The supersonic Concorde returned to the skies Wednesday, more than 15 months after one of the airliners crashed in a ball of flames. The first passenger flights since the crash marked a long-awaited comeback during one of the worst slumps in aviation history.
A British Airways Concorde, whose passengers included the rock star Sting, touched down at Kennedy International Airport at about 9:10 a.m., said airline spokeswoman Jemma Moore.
The passengers "were pleased to arrive in New York before they left London," Moore said.
An Air France Concorde with 92 passengers landed at JFK shortly before 8:30 a.m. after a three-hour, 55-minute flight from Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris.
|Sting serves champagne to fellow passenger Piers Morgan|
In a third Concorde flight Wednesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was taking a special charter to Washington to meet with President George W. Bush.
To show their confidence, French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot and Air France chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta were aboard the flight from Paris the first passenger-carrying Concorde flight since the July 25, 2000, crash that killed 113 people in France.
"This is the greatest tribute we can pay to the 113 people who lost their lives, and to whom I dedicate this flight," Spinetta said before takeoff.
The British Airways Concorde had taken off from London about an hour after the Air France flight, on an invitation-only flight. British Airways commercial flights to New York resume Friday.
Engineers say they have fixed the flaws that led to the crash the first in the Concorde's 25-year service. There also was a nod to safety concerns following the Sept. 11 terror attacks: Fine silver has been replaced with plastic cutlery.
Security was tight as passengers checked in for the Paris-New York flight. Armed police patrolled the check-in area and fire trucks were on standby.
The flight path had been changed to avoid the town of Gonesse, where the Air France jet crashed just after takeoff.
Among the Concorde regulars lining up for the Air France flight was perfume company founder Jean-Paul Guerlain, who said he'd flown the Concorde more than 200 times.
"I swore after the crash that I would fly again on the first flight," he said. "It's the most wonderful plane. I never lost confidence, and I have no fear."
Another passenger, Yvonne Rollim, 67, called the flight "a double tribute" to the Concorde and to New York, following the World Trade Cnter attack.
"We're paying homage to those who died on September 11th," she said.
The Concordes have been fitted with fuel-tank liners of bulletproof Kevlar, a reinforced undercarriage and stronger tires.
Investigators are expected to issue their report on the cause of the crash by early next year, but the crash has been widely blamed on a ruptured tire that sent debris flying into a fuel tank.
The new tires, designed by French firm Michelin, passed rigorous tests, including one that revved the wheel faster than 250 mph the Concorde's speed at takeoff and stabbed it with a titanium blade.
"We have never been able to make this tire blow up, under any circumstance," Pierre Desmarets, chief executive of Michelin Aircraft Tire Division, told Associated Press Television News.
Equally important to the engineering changes, aviation analysts say, is the symbolism of the Concorde reclaiming the sky.
"One of the icons of the civil aviation industry is returning," said Chris Yates, aviation safety editor at Jane's Transport in London. "It's the shot in the arm that the industry needs at this moment."
Despite a 30-percent drop in trans-Atlantic travel since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the airlines say they are confident of filling the 100-seat planes. British Airways says it has already sold 7,000 seats.
Flying above turbulence at twice the speed of sound, the Concorde crosses the Atlantic in about half the flying time of conventional jets. A roundtrip Paris-New York ticket costs about $7,300, while a London-New York roundtrip is about $10,000.
Service is being scaled back British Airways and Air France each have modified three Concordes.
By Timothy Williams
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