Big crowd to cheer Concorde's farewell

The last Concorde to carry fare-paying passengers took off from London bound for New York last night as preparations were finalised for the supersonic jet's retirement.

The British Airways flight, BA001, took off at 6.30pm carrying a full complement of 100 passengers ahead of a valedictory return to Heathrow this afternoon.

Three of the planes, which first entered commercial service in January 1976, will land consecutively at around 4pm in a final flurry of activity for the sleek, gas-guzzling aircraft that became a symbol of Anglo-French engineering and pampered travelling.

More than 150,000 people were expected to gather at the airport despite warnings from police and BAA, the company which owns Heathrow, that virtually all vantage points will be shut to the public.

BA said the final fare-paying flight, for which passengers had paid an average £4,621 for the single fare to New York's JFK airport, had been fully booked for weeks.

A spokeswoman said: "The plane has been chock-a-block for weeks. People who had planned a Concorde trip for some time in the future realised that time was running out." The aircraft will return to London from New York at 7am local time today carrying a full payload of invited guests, showbusiness personalities, media and BA's chairman, Lord Marshall. Among them will be Joan Collins, the television presenter Jeremy Clarkson and Sir David Frost, who has been one of Concorde's most frequent fliers.

The only paying passenger on board will be an Ohio businessman who paid an undisclosed sum in a charity auction for two seats on the plane. The flight will be the last of the three Concordes to land, preceded by one flight from Edinburgh and another from Heathrow, both carrying 100 competition winners.

BAA has erected a 1,000-seat grandstand for invited guests but other members of the public have been told to stay at home and watch the occasion on television. A BAA spokesman said: "It will not be possible to see Concorde at Heathrow - the rooftop car parks and viewing platforms will be closed. The best view will be from live coverage on television channels."

BA is expected to announce shortly whetherone of the aircraft will be maintained for fly-pasts and air shows.

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