Time to Retire the Concorde?

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The Concorde, plane of the rich and famous, is also probably the world's safest. The fireball outside Paris Tuesday was the supersonic jet's first fatal accident ever in 24 years of regular operation. And Air France officials said their current fleet was fit to fly safely until 2007.

Yet the plane had been having mishaps — little things. In October a piece of tail fell off in mid-flight. Last January, within a span of 24 hours, two British Airways Concordes had to make emergency landings for technical reasons — one engine failure, one mysterious false alarm. A few months ago, small cracks, said to be "microscopic" in size, were detected in all seven British Concordes, a British Airways spokeswoman said Monday; one of them was grounded because the cracks had gotten wider.

Has the Concorde hit old age ahead of schedule? Only 20 of the supersonic passenger jets were ever built, of which 13 are still in service, operated by British Airways and Air France. They were all built between 1975 and 1980. Both companies hope to keep the planes flying for another 14 or 15 years, and in fact both have recently upped their estimate of the number of "cycles" — roughly one transatlantic flight — the plane could stand, to 8,500. By this calculation, the planes are cleared for takeoff until 2006 at least. This view is supported by the fact that although its flights are high-stress and its takeoff and landing more labored than other planes, the Concorde makes only about a fifth of the trips more popular — and populist — planes do.

After the crash, Air France asserted, perhaps prematurely, that the crash was due not to any wing problem, like sneaking cracks, but to an exploding engine. That makes it the fastest investigation on record. They have not grounded the fleet beyond a thorough maintenance check, which on these delicate birds, with their 30-year-old technology, will be expensive.

British Airways says its Concordes gave the company prestige, shuttling the swells on their surprisingly cramped, 1,336-mph passage at $10,000 a head. A trip aboard one must have been like joining an exclusive but rather cramped and uncomfortable club. But part of its charm — to the small number of people who flew it — was that it was superior to the other planes, safer. For the price of a ticket, you were buying a guarantee.

If British and French industry officials, who built the Concorde together in the '60s as a kind of supersonic dove, decide that feeling is gone forever with Tuesday's catastrophe, then it's not hard to imagine that they will seriously consider retiring this distinctive, one-of-a-kind aircraft.