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British Airways Retires Fleet of Concordes - 2003-10-24

Supersonic commercial flight came to an end Friday, when British Airways retired its fleet of seven Concorde aircraft. The run ended when BA flight 002 touched down at its home field of Heathrow, just outside London, after a 3.5 - hour flight from New York.

Conceived of in the 1950s, built in the '60s, and flown commercially from the mid '70s, Concorde was a technological marvel.

There has been no other plane like it.

After 27 years in commercial service, the plane that crossed the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound has been pulled from service.

British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington says it was not an easy decision, but the Air France Concorde crash in 2000 and declines in passenger numbers both played a part.

"A mixture of economics and the realities of the world in which we live and operating robustness," he said. "Concorde is a remarkable airplane. The oldest airplane in our fleet, although it does not look it. It still looks the most modern, such is its grace and elegance."

Shareholders must be satisfied, and maintenance is a problem with older aircraft. But there are many aviation experts who believe that there were still many more years ahead for the supersonic fleet, if only the will were there to keep the planes flying.

Former pilot John Hutchinson flew the sleek, delta-winged plane for 15 years. "The airplane should not, in my view, be ending its career today," said John Hutchinson. "It has got at least eight or 10 years life left in it, and it just saddens me. I hope maybe that a consortium, or Sir Richard Branson [owner of Virgin Atlantic] or a consortium involving Sir Richard Branson, maybe will get together, and enable one to fly on as a heritage airplane, and that would be magnificent." British Airways has not ruled that out, and while most of the planes will be consigned to museums, one may be kept air-worthy for events like air shows.

The Concorde cut travel time on long flights almost in half, but seats were very expensive, accessible only to corporate customers, the rich and people who saved their money for years just for a ride to the edge of outer space, nearly 19 kilometers high. But the Concorde was not without controversy. Environmental groups opposed it because of the noise of its engines and the sonic booms it caused when it broke the sound barrier on each flight.

But there was little talk of all that on Friday at Heathrow Airport, where it was a day for reflection and memories. Among the several thousand people who came out to witness the landing was Jeanne Mason, who was a cabin crew member in the late '70s.

"It was just great to be here really," she said. "It is just the most beautiful airplane, and wherever we have been with it, everybody just looks at it and is still enthusiastic about it."

No one could accurately predict how long the Concorde would remain in service when its scheduled flights began in 1976. But few would have believed that 27 years later, there would be no newer version of the plane to take its place.