Glamorous dream shattered by hard economics

The World's Most Underused Jet
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The Independent Online

The current edition of the Air France in-flight magazine contains a prediction that the airline will long regret. Concorde, it asserts, will be flying until the year 2017.

The current edition of the Air France in-flight magazine contains a prediction that the airline will long regret. Concorde, it asserts, will be flying until the year 2017.

After yesterday's tragedy it is difficult to see much of a future for the troubled Anglo-French aircraft. Until now, it has enjoyed an exemplary safety record - perhaps partly due to the minuscule number of flights compared with other aircraft. But when that record ended, the supersonic era that began with such optimism may have died with it.

In the 1960s, Britain had not come to terms with a diminished role in the post-colonial world. It had, after all, pioneered jet travel, only for the Comet story to end tragically with a succession of fatigue-related accidents that allowed US companies to leapfrog the UK in aviation technology.

A supersonic passenger aircraft seemed an ideal way for Bristol's British Aircraft Corporation (now British Aerospace) to harness "the white heat" of technology promoted by Labour in 1963. With the French firm Sud-Aviation, British designers started to build a plane for the future.

When Britain and France conceived the idea of a joint venture, they foresaw a market for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Concordes among airlines hungry for premium passengers. By the time the governments threw in the towel and wrote off the cost of development, there were just 13 in service, each costing the British taxpayer £1bn at current prices.

The first Concorde took off 31 years ago, just ahead of the prototype Boeing 747, but while the jumbo was soon opening up air travel to the masses, it was another nine years before Concorde entered service.

The US at first refused to allow it to land, so the initial commercial services that began on 21 January 1976 were on BOAC (now British Airways) from Heathrow to Bahrain, and Air France from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. A year later, Washington relented and allowed flights to the US capital, but it took several more years before New York would let in the supersonic jet.

Bahrain, Dakar, Dallas, Miami and Singapore all enjoyed a brief supersonic affair before the truths of aviation economics triumphed over national prestige. Now, the only scheduled services link London and Paris with JFK, plus some holiday flights to Barbados.

Concorde is the most underused plane in the world. On average, BA's seven supersonic jets are airborne for just over two hours each day. To help pay for the enormous costs of maintaining an antiquated aircraft, the planes are used for joy-flights, such as the one that ended in disaster yesterday. Four out of five passengers are business people, with performers, lottery winners and royalty filling the remaining seats.

On Monday, after BA confirmed cracks had been found in its aircraft, a spokeswoman for the airline predicted: "We think Concorde has another 15 to 20 years left in her." That lifespan must surely now be measured in days.

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