Ailing Concorde will have to keep flying for another 20 years

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Concorde, the world's only supersonic passenger jet, is likely to remain in service for another 20 years, despite a number of high profile incidents in the last few months.

Only this week, two transatlantic flights on one day had to be halted after the planes dumped fuel and returned to Kennedy International Airport in New York when warning lights flashed inside the cockpit.

And in February, three incidents involving British Airways Concorde's twenty-year-old engines left passengers grumbling.

The supersonic jet, only 20 of which were built, has had worse scrapes. Since 1989, three BA Concordes have lost large sections of their rudders in mid-flight - which cost pounds 5m to replace. However, no plane has ever crashed and the structures remain in almost perfect condition.

None of the problems encountered has been serious enough to warrant an investigation by the airworthiness authorities. However, they do mar the image of the aircraft - which encourages the rich, the famous and those simply in a big hurry to cough up pounds 2,500 for the three hour flight across the Atlantic.

As the aircraft grow older, the cost of keeping them in service also rises. Every plane has to undergo 22 hours of maintenance for every one hour of flight, more than three times that required for a Boeing 747. All of BA' s Concordes are overhauled twice a year and they recently had their interiors refurbished. Despite the latest problems, the Civil Aviation Authority, has just extended the "life" of each Concorde by more than 20 per cent.

Even with the extra cash needed, the planes are still profitable. British Airways, which has seven Concordes in its fleet, has consistently made money - which should irk taxpayers in France and Britain who footed the pounds 1.2bn bill. Air France has seven Concordes but only uses five normally.

The problem for other carriers is that the jet has no obvious successor. British Aerospace, which built Concorde with French giant Aerospatiale, produced plans for a 200-seater jet four years ago, but the project petered out after the Government refused to dole out a subsidy to the company.

For the super-rich, Sukhoi, a Russian manufacturer, had plans to develop a 10-seater corporate plane which could match Concorde's cruising speed of twice the speed of sound. The proposals never took off because the plane-makers could not find enough buyers. Although Concorde put Europe ahead in commercial supersonic flights, the Americans are anxious to regain their supremacy in the skies. While Europe has only prepared to spend a paltry pounds 10m a year on supersonic research, the US has agreed to a pounds 1.2bn, 10-year programme. The US authorities are using an old Russian "Concordski" - the Tupolev Tu-144 - as a test plane.

"People are always asking about the future of supersonic transport," says Captain Mike Bannister, BA's flight manager for Concorde. "With no real signs of a successor, it looks like it will be Concorde."

Supersonic high-flyers' club

Frequent flyers, who may find themselves stranded if Concorde no longer flies, include captains of British industry as well as pop stars such as Phil Collins and Diana Ross and media bigwigs such as Sir David Frost.

Top bankers such as Michael Marks of Merrill Lynch and John Thornton of Goldman Sachs would find nipping across the Atlantic for that all-important business meeting almost impossible.

According to British Airways, 25 per cent of passengers use the aircraft for day trips. About 70 per cent are businessmen or professionals who are prepared to pay the pounds 2,500 fare to New York to save time and avoid jet lag.

The motor racing legend Jackie Stewart used Concorde about 40 times and travelled 500,000 miles last year as he signed deals for his new Formula One team. Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, tried to sign up Chris Evans, the enfant terrible of the airwaves, on a Concorde flight to New York.