- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

ROISSY, France — Air France’s Concorde landed in New York for the last time yesterday, an emotional trans-Atlantic journey completed in just over 3 hours as the supersonic jetliner nears the end of a pioneering chapter in aviation.

The white, needle-nosed Sierra Delta — Concordes have names, not numbers — took off from Charles de Gaulle Airport at 4:38 EDT. As the wheels left the tarmac, it was already doing 236 mph. Seconds later, it was a point on the horizon.

In its final commercial flight for Air France today, the Concorde will speed back to Paris, and then go into retirement.

“It’s very emotional. Concorde is a story of joy, of emotion, of technical prowess,” said Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, an Air France staffer, before the flight departed with 58 passengers, three pilots and eight cabin-crew members. Chief pilot Jean-Francois Michel was at the controls.

Air France and British Airways, the only carriers to operate the aircraft, are retiring their Concorde fleets. The last British Airways flights are scheduled for October.

Both carriers say they can no longer afford the plane’s high maintenance costs.

Unless Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson succeeds in his bid to take over British Airways’ Concordes — which few consider likely — the 12 existing Concordes will be dispersed to museums.

“We want to let the Concorde retire in grace and dignity,” said British Airways spokesman John Lampl. “It’s just costing us more to run, and from a business point of view the decision was made to end Concorde now.”

The distinctive white aircraft with its delta wings, slightly arched head and needle nose was the essence of elite air travel for more than a quarter-century. An unrestricted one-way ticket on the Concorde costs $6,000, but special deals including half-Concorde round trips can make supersonic travel more affordable.

Growing up, Eric Seiden thought the Concorde “was just something cool” but assumed it was out of his reach. Then in 1994, Mr. Seiden, who lives in Miami and works for a distributor of screws, nuts and bolts, was unexpectedly upgraded from business class to Concorde on Air France.

“It’s as close as you can get to outer space,” said Mr. Seiden, who has his own Concorde Web site. “You can actually see the huge curvature of the Earth.”

His fellow passengers included newlyweds Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley canoodling in the back of the plane. They eventually divorced.

The Concorde’s demise follows the July 25, 2000, accident over Gonesse, France, that killed 113 persons, including four on the ground. The aircraft was taken out of service until November 2001 and refurbished based on findings by investigators.

They determined a stray piece of metal on the runway punctured a tire during takeoff. Rubber chunks then punctured the fuel tank, triggering a fire. The Concorde was fixed with sturdier tires and a fuel-tank liner, but things were never the same.

Flying fears after the September 11 terrorist attacks took a toll on airlines around the world, making it harder to keep the fancy flying machine, with its costly maintenance, in service.

Concorde’s demise ends an era of champagne at twice the speed of sound.

The menu for yesterday’s flight included caviar, foie gras in puff pastry, lobster and beef filet.

“We work in exceptional conditions, with an exceptional clientele, in an exceptional plane,” said Jean-Charles Principeaud, a Concorde flight attendant. “To be able to serve a glass of champagne while flying at Mach 2 was something that seemed impossible a few years ago. Now we are aboard the most beautiful plane in the world. It will remain an unforgettable dream.”

The rich pampered themselves with supersonic trans-Atlantic travel. Concorde also served on-the-go diplomats such as French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and executives making deals on both sides of the Atlantic. Another category of supersonic clients certain to feel wistful are neither rich nor high-powered, just faithful lovers of the Concorde, including the aircraft’s specially trained crews.

Although the Concorde’s regular passengers include many celebrities, the majority are businessmen. And most are men: According to British Airways, 80 percent of its Concorde passengers are male, and the average age is 43.

Others will celebrate the last days of the needle-nosed jet, which is louder and less fuel-efficient than any other plane currently flying.

The luxury aircraft began regular service in 1976. With a cruising speed of 1,350 mph, it crosses the Atlantic Ocean in about three hours; because of the time change, westbound passengers arrived before they left.

The Concorde made regular flights to Washington Dulles International Airport beginning in 1977 but never won enough passengers to continue the service.

The idea of a supersonic passenger plane gained momentum in the 1950s, after Chuck Yeager’s 1947 blast through the sound barrier. Manufacturers in Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States worked on designs.

In 1968, the Concorde’s first prototype rolled out at Toulouse, France. It lifted off 13 months later, three months after the Soviet version made its first flight.

Only 20 were built, with 12 remaining in service, all operated by the two companies.

One of Air France’s five planes will be on exhibit at Charles de Gaulle Airport and the other four are to go to various museums, Air France said.

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