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Service that lands before it takes off celebrates its 21st birthday

TWENTY-ONE YEARS ago an aircraft took off from Heathrow, made a deafening noise somewhere west of Ireland, and, after its passengers had sipped some Krug and supped on the finest beluga caviare, landed in New York two hours before it had taken off. It was an unprecedented event in the history of air travel.

Yesterday Concorde came of age, celebrating the 21st birthday of the world's first supersonic transatlantic air service by serving passengers on its two flights from London, er, Krug champagne and beluga caviare.

There were no official celebrations and Concorde has not, as predicted at the time, heralded a new era of universal supersonic travel. The price of fuel and the success of the jumbo jet mean BA has only seven of the pointy aircraft in service now. But, like any 21-year-old of such glittering birthright, Concorde has become a social institution with a positively peerless network of admirers, darling.

Among its passionate followers are Rupert Murdoch, Lord Hanson, Sean Connery, George Harrison, Joan Collins and Sting, who pay a mere pounds 6,948 return for the chance to beat the aircraft's runway-to-runway record across the ocean of two hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

Like their counterparts in those other symbols of social achievement, London's Met Bar and the Groucho Club, Concorde's inhabitants are split between the blase regulars and the gawping newcomers who grab every memento they can get their hands on - though on Concorde it is more likely to be a complimentary set of solid silver napkin-holders than a box of matches.

Some 80 per cent of passengers are business travellers and 40 per cent are regulars. The latter have their own seating preference, as they do at, say, The Ivy. The Queen, Barbara Cartland and Mr Murdoch, all first in their fields, like to be in Row One, as does Henry Kissinger. Baroness Thatcher, uncharacteristically, likes to be found in the middle, on the aisle at 4C.

Joan Collins sits by the window two rows behind the loos at 12D.

The future for Concorde is uncertain, with the ageing fleet of craft unlikely to remain in service more than 15 years and no replacement in sight, though Concorde's chief pilot, Captain Mike Bannister, said yesterday he was still hopeful that a new generation of supersonic craft would be developed imminently.

"It's like driving a sports car instead of a truck," said Captain Bannister when asked to compare his toy with a jumbo jet.

And with that he was off to take his mother-in-law for a spin around the Bay of Biscay on a Concorde charter flight for her 87th birthday.