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Concorde's Era Comes to an End - Not its Mystique - 2003-10-22

The Concorde, the aviation icon of glamour and luxury, takes off from New York City for the last time on Friday. The supersonic jet is being retired, a victim of rising fuel costs and slumping economies.

The sleek plane, with its signature angular nose and broad wingspan, earned its place in aviation history by flying 2,173 kilometers an hour - twice the speed of sound - at an altitude of 18 kilometers, twice as high as other commercial jets.

For nearly 30 years, elite corporate and celebrity fliers have paid as much as $13,000 per seat on the three-and-a-half hour journey between London and Paris and New York, about half the flying time of a regular airplane. The supersonic plane also flew to other destinations in North America, as well as to the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.

Despite its enduring mystique, the Concorde has been a money-loser from the very beginning, said airline economist Jim Craun. "It was conceived, and designed and built at a time when aviation fuel was about 10 or 11 cents a gallon," he explained. "The first OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo and crisis really changed that forever. The Concorde consumes a lot of fuel in order to reach the supersonic speeds, and that was an economic drawback of the plane almost from the beginning.

"In a sense," added Mr. Craun, "a lot of people look back now in the United States and say, 'It's a good thing we didn't build a Concorde back then because we would've had the same problem with the fuel.' It has rendered the Concorde probably unprofitable through its entire existence."

Mr. Craun said the jets have been successful marketing flagships for Air France and British Airways, the only two carriers to operate the Concorde. But it also suffered from some bad publicity. The entire fleet was grounded for more than a year after a deadly August, 2000, crash outside Paris exposed design problems that required costly modifications.

The loss of the Concorde is purely an emotional one, according to Mr. Craun. "We all mourn because it's a beautiful aircraft, and it was something that was very forward-looking. But it never made sense economically," he said.

For Tom Gwynne, who works for The Cradle of Aviation Museum on New York's Long Island, the Concorde was much more than beautiful - it was a symbol of the best of aviation technology.

"If we look back over the development of aviation both in the military and civilian community, what we see is a goal of flying higher and faster," he said. "And for a long time, that seemed to be what held the imagination and focus of people involved in the design of aviation, and perhaps the expectation on the part of those people who use airliners and travel via air. With the retirement of the Concorde, it seems as if we maybe are witnessing the apogee of that, at least in the near future, in that when it is finally grounded, people will not be able to fly supersonic any longer."

For Mr. Gwynne, no other aircraft compares to the Concorde, or to the thrill of being able to fly at the speed of Mach II. "It's so graceful, it's got such lovely lines, and if you look at it against a dark blue sky when it's flying overhead, it's just a white dart with usually a long white contrail coming out behind it," he said. "And even walking up to it on the ground, it's still a magnificent airplane. Watching it take off and land with a nose drooped, it sort of reminds me of a beautiful swan coming into land. It makes a little bit more noise, but it certainly is a beautiful machine."

Richard Branson, the entrepreneur and owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, made an unsuccessful bid to buy British Airways' Concorde fleet. BA officials have said that several of its airplanes will be housed in aviation museums around the world. One Concorde will be retired at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City.