Concorde’s future cloudy

 - January 21, 2008, 11:34 AM

Concorde, the Anglo-French supersonic airliner that is the flagship of British Airways and Air France, could become a victim of the current economic downturn. Almost exactly 34 years after its first flight and less than 18 months since the aircraft returned to service after being grounded following the July  25, 2000 accident in Paris, British Airways confirmed that it is reviewing Concorde’s future.

Under a continuing analysis of equipment, markets and routes, the European major said in late February, “We are looking at when Concorde should retire as part of an on going review, but we have taken no decisions.” The SST is particularly vulnerable because almost all of its business is on North Atlantic services that have been hardest hit by the current depression in high-yield business traffic. BA has confirmed that Concorde’s commercial performance is under scrutiny. “It is primarily a business tool since 80 percent of passengers are business people, and when the market is tough Concorde comes under pressure. We are looking at the cost base of the business,” the airline explained.

Since BA supersonic service began again after the 15-month grounding, operations have remained at a once-daily rather than twice-daily flight on the London-New York route–a situation that the carrier concedes will continue for the foreseeable future. The reduced utilization of the fleet, which also serves the Caribbean, has led BA to offer 10 Concorde flight engineers alternative work.

Because of the aircraft’s high profile, any technical problems have always attracted media attention. Incidents have included partial rudder detachments, engine and afterburner problems, cracked windows or most prominently the fiery Paris accident in July 2000 after a burst tire punctured a fuel tank. “We will continue to fly it so long as it is safe, reliable and commercially viable,” said BA. Air France declined to comment on BA’s move.

For its part, the French carrier’s own Concorde fleet recently came under the spotlight when one aircraft carrying 39 passengers and six crew landed at New York’s Kennedy Airport on February 27 with the lower half of the bottom rudder missing. During the flight from Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, the flight crew had felt “a bump” as the aircraft approached the top of its climb over the Atlantic. They elected to continue to New York when instruments showed satisfactory readings.

Only as the SST approached the arrival gate was the crew made aware of the situation by the crew of another aircraft. The incident is being investigated by France’s Bureau Enquetes Accident. After the July 2000 Paris crash, the two airlines’ Concorde fleets were modified with fuel-tank linings, stronger tires and improved electrical harnesses in the area of the landing gear.