Concorde returns with style - and plastic cutlery

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The Independent Online

The lobster will be served on the finest bone china and the Krug champagne poured into crystal flutes, but only when the passengers pick up their cutlery will they see how much has changed since Concorde last roared into the skies.

As 100 VIPs sit down for lunch at an altitude of 60,000ft in chic Connolly leather cradle seats on flight BA001 today, they will eat, not with hallmarked silver, but with the very best in heat-moulded plastic, the anti-terror alternative.

The iconic aircraft is scheduled to take off at 10.30am from Heathrow today, bound for New York, in a triumphal return to the skies 16 months after an Air France Concorde crashed in Paris, killing 113.

British Airways claims the revamped jet is the world's safest – and the most stylish – since a refit by Sir Terence Conran turned it into a post-modern haven of leather, aluminium and cashmere.

But, whereas a couple of months ago the £14m make-over of BA's supersonic fleet might have been hailed with a Hello!-style publicity blitz, the 11 September attacks have added a sobering ingredient.

Security for the return of the BA fleet's flagship, with its new Kevlar-lined fuel tanks and reinforced tyres, will be among the tightest for an aircraft taking off from British soil.

On board will be captains of industry including Digby Jones, the director of the Confederation of British Industry, John Spellar, a Transport minister, representatives of Britain's national daily papers, and the chief executive of British Airways, Rod Eddington. This afternoon, Tony Blair will offer the stamp of prime ministerial approval by chartering one of the revamped jets to Washington for his summit with President Bush.

The plastic cutlery the passengers will use is just one in a battery of checks and controls to ensure the safety of Concorde, which aviation experts agree could be a "classic target" for terrorists. BA officials have been left with a dilemma over how to preserve the exclusivity, refinement and convenience of Concorde, while meeting revised Department of Transport safety rules.

A spokeswoman admitted that the plastic knives and forks, made by Harfield Components, in Stockport, were a compromise option giventhe climate of concern. "Concorde is not exempt from the government rules, but the new cutlery is very high-quality plastic. We looked at quite a few examples to find the best one that met the safety requirements," she said.

A series of embarrassing lapses at British and foreign airports in recent weeks have heightened concern that the aviation industry could still prove a viable target for terrorists. British Airways insisted its security measures would be "exceptionally stringent".

American officials admitted yesterday that a man born in Nepal, Subash Bahadur Gurung, 27, had passed checks at Chicago's O'Hare airport with a stun gun, seven knives and tear-gas in his hand luggage.

Days earlier, a reporter and photographer for The Mirror walked into a maintenance hangar at Stansted airport in Essex and spent an hour around an unattended jet belonging to the budget carrier Go. Chris Yates, the editor of Jane's Aviation Security, said the Stansted lapse was an aberration that could not be repeated at Heathrow. But he added: "Concorde would be a classic target for a terror attack. For that reason, the authorities are taking extra measures."

Patrols have already been increased outside the perimeter fence of Heathrow airport, where the three refitted Concordes are being kept. Renewed checks have been made on the personal backgrounds of staff who work in British Airway's maintenance hangars, and on those who prepare the aircraft before the passengers go on board.

There will also be extra body searches at boarding gates – which are fitted with glass so that Concorde users can see the jet – as well as X-ray and sniffer checks for hand luggage.

But despite the compromise of using picnic equipment to eat lunch on the £6,819 return flight to New York's JFK airport, evidence of £20m worth of advance bookings for the daily transatlantic trip to the Big Apple suggests that plenty are willing to believe nothing has detracted from the exquisite new menu designed by the Austrian chef Attila Dogudan.

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