- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2001

British and French officials cleared the luxury Concorde for takeoff, yesterday laying out safety modifications required before the world's only commercial supersonic jet can fly again after a crash killed 113 persons last year.

But some aviation industry insiders wonder whether the disaster will continue to hurt Concorde and whether it's worth reviving the 31-year-old aircraft.

"From a safety point of view, they're probably the safest planes in the sky right now," said Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an airline industry consultant in Evergreen, Colo. "They're probably safer than sitting at home watching TV. I just don't know whether it's worth putting all that money into geriatric airplanes."

After the collision last year, British Airways and Air France revamped Concorde's design with more durable tires, puncture-resistant fuel tanks and modified wiring.

"If the glory of France and pride of England are at stake, fine," Mr. Boyd said. "But these new modifications and technologies they're putting into them are going to make them even more expensive to fly."

British Airways is spending $24.5 million on safety modifications. Air France is spending a similar amount. The airlines decline to disclose revenue from the Concordes.

Both the Civil Aviation Authority in London and French aviation authorities cleared Concorde to fly again when safety modifications are completed. The Federal Aviation Administration also consented to the resumed flights.

British Airways did not specify a date it planned to resume London-New York supersonic service. It said one of its Concordes had completed all the modifications and would be certified to fly on Wednesday, while modifications are under way on two other planes.

Air France said one of its five Concordes had been fully modified and the others would follow. It plans to resume commercial Concorde flights in November.

Air France grounded its Concorde fleet immediately after one of its jets crashed after takeoff from Paris on July 25, 2000. British Airways kept flying its Concordes between New York and London until mid-August of last year, ending service just before the two governments withdrew the certificate permitting the fleet to fly.

Investigators found that a stray strip of metal on the runway punctured one of the plane's high-pressure tires, which blew a hole in a wing fuel tank and started a fire.

"As an independent specialist regulator, the CAA has monitored all the work and the modifications very closely and is now satisfied that the changes will prevent any future catastrophic accident such as occurred at Paris," said Mike Bell, the British Civil Aviation Authority's head of design and production standards.

Less certain is how fast the Concordes can recover customer confidence.

"Since the beginning of this year, British Airways has been putting a substantial amount of assets into convincing people to come back to the aircraft," said Chris Yates, aviation security editor for Jane's Information Group, a publishing company that reports on global defense, aerospace and transportation.

The marketing campaign includes VIP tours of Concorde's hangars and a $1.5 million media blitz.

"That is going to work to an extent," Mr. Yates said. "I think that will work for the business travelers that have a need to use Concorde in day-to-day business."

However, leisure travelers who treat themselves to a supersonic trans-Atlantic flight might be intimidated by the image of the Concorde going down in flames.

"That sort of market, and indeed the charter market for Concorde, is going to take some time to come back," Mr. Yates said. "You can throw as much money as you like at a marketing campaign. Some people will respond to that and some won't."

British Airways, which last year announced a $20 million remodeling of cabin interiors and Concorde lounges in New York and London, ran a series of five test flights with employees filling the seats.

Despite remodelings, marketing campaigns and government subsidies, the plane has struggled to make money. The fuel-guzzling Concorde carries just 100 passengers, making it less economical than a jumbo jet. In addition, no country would permit it to fly over land because of loud engines. Only 20 were built, with 12 remaining in service.

But the delta-winged, needle-nosed plane had prestige, drawing celebrities and business people who thought their time was valuable enough to justify fares of more than $8,700 for a round trip across the Atlantic.

The Concorde cruises at 1,350 mph, faster than any other commercial aircraft, flying between Europe and New York in about 3? hours. Flight times for other planes are about twice as long.

"There will always be a certain number of passengers for whom getting from point A to point B in the shortest period of time is important, whether it be for diplomatic or business reasons or whatever," Mr. Yates said. "Concorde fulfills this niche market very well."

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.


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