- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2000

British Airways grounded its fleet of seven Concordes yesterday, just as one prepared to take off from London's Heathrow Airport.

British and French authorities are expected to suspend certification of all 12 planes today, a move that could signal the end of the supersonic plane.

French authorities suspended Air France's Concorde flights immediately after the July 25 crash that killed 113 persons, the first fatal incident involving a Concorde in its 31-year history.

The decision to ground the remaining Concorde planes had some aviation industry analysts predicting the demise of the plane, which made its first flight when testing of two prototypes began March 2, 1969.

"I think we have 12 new museum pieces," said Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an airline industry consultant in Evergreen, Colo.

Only British Airways and Air France fly Concordes. British Airways operates seven, and Air France has five.

No new Concordes are under construction or are ever likely to be built, analysts said.

Flying at top speeds of 1,336 miles per hour more than twice as fast as standard commercial planes the Concordes have a market among those with the money to afford steep ticket prices and the need to reach destinations at speeds conventional jets can't come close to matching.

Both British Airways and Air France still make money on the planes, and business customers continue to pay fares that can reach $7,000.

After the July 25 crash, Air France officials said the company's Concorde service earned between $1.4 million to $2.8 million in the past fiscal year.

Chris Yates, aviation security editor for Jane's Information Group, said British Airways has suggested its fleet of Concordes could fly for another 10 years, while Air France has said its Concordes could fly seven more years.

"By virtue of the fact it was still flying, I think that indicates the Concorde is still necessary. It serves a crucial function, certainly to the business community," Mr. Yates said.

But aviation experts dispute whether the plane is a crown jewel of commercial aviation that should be allowed back in service or whether it is an aging, overpriced hulk that is nearing the end of its useful life.

The cost to maintain the Concorde continues to rise as the planes age, Mr. Boyd said.

"Making modifications will cost a bundle," he said.

Investigators believe the initial cause of the July 25 crash was a metal strip that punctured a tire, sending chunks of rubber into the area of the fuel tanks.

British Airways grounded one of its Concordes the day before the Air France crash because small cracks on the plane's wings had grown larger. Engineers had detected 2-inch cracks on the wings of all the airline's Concordes several months earlier, but the airline said the planes were still safe to fly.

Air France said July 24 the day before the crash it found cracks on four supersonic Concorde passenger jets earlier this summer but denied they represented a safety risk and said the planes would not be grounded because of them.

The French Transport Ministry is heading an investigation into the fatal crash.

Discontinuing Concorde flights would have little effect on either carrier's revenue, said Steve Jaffe, an analyst at Chantilly-based airline industry consultant Avitas Inc.

"Clearly, it will be a disappointment to Air France and British Airways if they have to stop flying them, but it won't materially affect the company," he said.

Even if French and British regulators agree to let the carriers resume Concorde flights, getting passengers back onto the planes may be difficult given last month's disaster, Mr. Yates said.

"Each day that goes by, public confidence wanes. Convincing people to get back on board could be … a struggle," he said.

That wasn't a difficulty with the DC-10, grounded for 37 days in 1979 after a crash at Chicago's O'Hare Airport killed 272 persons in May of that year. Airplane manufacturers have built 337 DC-10s, and 277 are in service today.

"They tracked down the problem. Since then, the DC-10 has had great success," Mr. Jaffe said.

British Airways began trans-Atlantic service from London to Washington Dulles International Airport on May 24, 1976, but announced in October 1994 it would discontinue the service because of declining ridership. The trip took just 3 1/2 hours.

Braniff International, the air carrier that went bankrupt in May 1982, flew Concorde routes from Dulles to Dallas four days a week in 1979 and 1980 before discontinuing the service.

Mr. Yates hopes to see the Concorde back in the air.

"We're talking about an aircraft that is the creme de la creme of civil aviation," he said.

Not everyone is as sentimental.

"The supersonic era is over in air transportation. The Concordes have flown for the last time," Mr. Boyd predicted.

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