Flight of Fancy

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Pilots call it V1 the agonizing point after which a plane is going too fast to abort takeoff and still stop safely on the runway. Civilians might call it the point of no return.

It comes earlier for Concorde than for other passenger jets because its takeoff speed is about 30% faster than theirs, 397 km/h. Captain Christian Marty appears to have discovered the crippling fire in his No. 2 engine just after AF 4590 passed its V1 last Tuesday, dooming his plane to its tragic end.

The crash raises the question whether Concorde has gone past its own point of no return. Despite the plane's fine safety record no fatalities until last week it has not been trouble-free, and it is aging. In 1998, pieces of wing panel fell off during a flight. Repeatedly in 1991, and once again in 1998, sections of rudder came off while the plane was flying 16 km high at twice the speed of sound. In the year ending July 1999, 130 safety-related incidents were reported, from problems with hydraulics to repeated incidents of smoke in the air conditioning system. Just days before last week's crash, tiny cracks in a wing spar were reported throughout the Concorde fleet. One British Airways plane was taken out of service because the fissures had grown. Other aircraft have problems too, but is it time for governments to ground these monuments to 1960s technology before they kill someone else? Or will Concorde's death come more slowly but no less inexorably, because the ultra-rich passengers on whose whims its profitability depends decide to abandon it concluding that despite the allure of departing London or Paris in the morning and arriving in time for breakfast in New York, it's more prudent to fly first class on a Boeing 777 manufactured last year?

Just looking at Concorde, with its startlingly beautiful lines like some kind of sleek origami crane, is enough to make you forget prudence altogether. It was never a project for the bean counters. Instead, it represents the romance of postwar technology at its most ambitious, like harnessing the atom or the Apollo moon shot. Both Britain and France started supersonic transport projects in 1956 and combined them in 1962. The technology their joint venture developed for sustained supersonic flight even today there are no military aircraft that can fly as fast as Concorde for as long was remarkable, including the first computerized flight controls in civilian planes.

But that excellence came at a price. Development costs exceeded $4 billion, five times the initial estimate. When it first flew in 1969, Concorde's builders, British Aircraft Corp. and Aerospatiale, thought they could recoup their investment through a worldwide supersonic network creaming off the most profitable passengers. It was not to be. The first spoiler was Boeing's 747, which started flying commercially in 1970. It moved four times as many passengers as Concorde's 100 at half the cost in maintenance and using less than half the fuel. In 1970, when oil cost $1.67 a barrel, that was an inconvenience; by 1976, when Concorde's first commercial flights began, the oil crisis had boosted the price to $11.51 a barrel, and in 1980 to $36.15, which destroyed the economic assumptions on which Concorde was based. The faster-is-better faith of its designers also collided with the growing ecology movement. It objected to sonic booms and claimed that Concorde's high-altitude, gas-guzzling flights would destroy the ozone layer. The U.S. killed its own supersonic transport project in 1971. It barred any supersonic flights over land, a stance other countries adopted. By 1976, international airlines had dropped each of 76 options to buy the plane. Production ceased at 16 (compared to more than 1,000 for the 747). British Airways and Air France, the only airlines which now operate Concorde, nervously accepted it only after their governments picked up almost all the purchase cost.

Though it now had only to pay back its operating expenses, Concorde still floundered. "There was a view among senior management that it wasn't a question of whether Concorde would cease operation but when," says Captain Brian Walpole, who flew the aircraft and then headed a separate Concorde division within British Airways. "There was one month when not a single Concorde departed on time." But market research showed how to build the business, emphasizing reliable service, speed and luxury. About 80% of passengers on scheduled flights are senior executives who don't mind an exorbitant charge on their expense account (the current round-trip fare between London and New York is $10,063) for cramped seats and no inboard movies because they can show up 30 minutes before departure at a lounge devoid of riffraff and claim their bags eight minutes after emerging from the three-and-a-half hour hop across the Atlantic. One oil executive clocks nearly 70 trips a year. And there's always the chance of sitting next to Margaret Thatcher or Kate Moss or Paul McCartney, who once led a singalong on board. A booming demand for charter flights BA runs 200 a year reflects Concorde's continuing cachet.

This loyal customer base means demand for Concorde may dip but should weather the crash. While Air France (which already talked about getting out of the Concorde business in 2007 for financial reasons) has grounded its fleet until the disaster is better understood, BA, which is spending $21 million to refurbish its Concorde lounges and interiors, resumed normal schedule the next day. Colin Mitchell, managing director of Greenwood Travel, which has sent over 100,000 people on Concorde charters, says only a few have canceled since the crash.

All this would collapse if Concorde suffered another disaster. But aviation experts are generally impressed by the plane's safety features and record. The average Concorde flies two-and-a-half hours a day compared to 12-16 for most airliners, which means that a 20-year-old Concorde has been in the air as long as a workhorse 737 only four years old. The British fleet has been certified to fly until 2015, and Chris Yates, an aviation safety correspondent for Jane's Information Group, calls it "a magnificent aircraft. If someone gives me a ticket I'll happily hop down to Heathrow and fly on it."

Certainly there is no new supersonic transport about to take its place. Airbus is focusing on developing the superjumbo A3XX, which in its stretch version will move as many as a thousand economy passengers. Boeing is convinced that a Concorde replacement would be wildly uneconomic. But booming demand for executive jets has led some manufacturers to think they could sell a hundred or more 10- to 25-seat supersonic birds with the range to cross the Pacific. If that plane is built, probably not before 2010, it may make money. But it will not be, either in good times or terrible ones, the icon that Concorde has become.

With reporting by Sally Donnelly/Washington and Scott MacLeod/Paris