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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 April, 2003, 21:58 GMT 22:58 UK
The Concorde phenomenon
Sting at Concorde terminal
Sting is a frequent Concorde flyer
With the news that British Airways is to retire its Concorde fleet by the end of the year, BBC News Online considers the achievements of the world's first supersonic passenger jet and looks ahead to its possible successors.

The unmistakable low-pitched rumble is still to be heard daily over West London as four Olympus turbojets power British Airways' flagship service westward once again.

On board flight BA001, up to 100 passengers relax in their seats, knowing that, in a little under four hours, they will be touching down in New York City.

With return tickets currently starting at 3,655, Concorde is not cheap but, for those for whom money is no object, there's just no other way to fly.

'Hooked'

Flight International's David Learmont says: "The phenomenon of Concorde alone doesn't ensure its success.

"Concorde enables BA to poach first-class customers from US airlines and draw them to Heathrow to take other BA flights to other parts of the world.

"Once they've experienced BA's style, been given platinum Executive Club cards and signed up for air miles, BA hopes they'll be hooked."

Concorde aficionados include high-flyers from the worlds of business, politics, sport and entertainment.

Fly "the Conk" and you could be rubbing shoulders with Tony Blair, Joan Collins, Sting or Sir David Frost - who is said to have travelled on the aircraft more times than anyone but its crew.

I don't see anything replacing it until 2025
David Learmont, Flight International
But even though its iconic, futuristic, outlines continue to turn heads wherever it flies, Concorde's days as the ultimate airliner seem numbered.

BA's Concordes are expected to cease flying in the autumn and Air France has reportedly pencilled in 2007 as the retirement date.

They have experienced falling ticket sales - especially among price-conscious businesses - and rising costs.

Though still a totem of modernity, Concorde is decidedly middle-aged.

A child of the 1950s - it was first mooted a month after the Suez crisis in 1956 - it is a product of nationalised industry, an echo of an Anglo-French-led technological future which never happened.

Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle named the aircraft
The aircraft was developed during an era of consensus politics, when such diverse figures as Harold Macmillan and Tony Benn shared a common vision of the role of government in directing and organising such projects.

As such, Concorde has more in common with the 1930s than the present day.

It was the then President of France, Charles de Gaulle, who first named the Concorde project in 1963.

Between then and its first commercial flights on 21 January 1976 - British Airways from London to Bahrain and Air France from Paris to Rio de Janeiro via Dakar - more than 1bn was spent on research, development and production, creating hundreds of jobs in both the UK and France.

Bounced back from tragedy

But its critics, and there are many, see the aircraft as dirty, noisy and cramped.

The sonic boom produced by the aircraft prevents it from operating at supersonic speeds over land and its maximum operational range of 4,500 miles means that the world's most lucrative route - Los Angeles to Tokyo - has never been on the cards.

There is no doubt, though, that the Concorde project has been a triumph of hope over adversity.

Despite the tragedy of the only Concorde crash, in Paris in July 2000, resulting in 114 deaths, Concorde has bounced back. A 17m refit, including new seats designed by Sir Terence Conran, spruced up British Airways' aircraft.

Concorde crash site in France
A Concorde crashed near Paris in July 2000
Even recent engineering and mechanical problems have not been so much serious safety concerns as issues of "reputation", according to industry experts.

And, as yet, no other aerospace company has taken up the challenge of building a commercial aircraft to fly faster than a speeding bullet.

The ill-fated Tupolev TU 144, a Russian Concorde clone, made little impact during its tragic lifetime and putative supersonic projects from Boeing and McDonnell Douglas came to nothing.

There is talk today of large, subsonic aircraft, carrying more passengers further.

But the current state of the international aerospace industry, still recovering from 11 September 2001, with many long-standing airlines going to the wall and in a climate of economic uncertainty, may mean a long wait before Concorde's successor finally takes to the skies.




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