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Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Concorde down, but not necessarily out

July 30, 2000

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— The crash of Air France Flight AF4590 triggered a round of warnings that the once-glorious Concorde era had ended in an ugly ball of flames just outside Paris.

"The Mourning of the Concorde" blared the headline of the French weekly news magazine Le Point's cover story Friday. "The Concorde, without a doubt, died yesterday," the widely read Le Figaro daily lamented in its pages Wednesday, a day after the crash that killed 114 people.

Yet British Airways put its fleet back into service after a brief pause and French officials say they haven't made any final decisions on the Concorde. With experts saying the Concorde is still a sound plane and wealthy travelers still revering its speed and luxury, it may be too soon to write off the supersonic jetliner.

Before Tuesday, the Concorde had avoided major disasters during its 31 years and no commercial aircraft comes close to its supersonic speed. The jet travels at twice the speed of sound and zips between the European continent and New York in under four hours -- twice as fast as normal airplanes.

It also allows business executives to leave London or Paris at the end of a full day's work and arrive in New York the same evening. For $10,000, celebrities can sip champagne and enjoy meals catered by the famed French chef Alain Ducasse -- away from the gawk of commoners.

"For most of those who fly the Concorde, their time is worth money," said Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst at JSA Research in Newport, R.I. "I don't think people will be reluctant to fly the Concorde anymore than they've been reluctant to fly after other crashes."

Aviation experts in Europe and the United States echoed those words, saying that travelers have continued to fly airplanes by Boeing, Airbus and McDonnell Douglas, despite high-profile, fatal crashes.

They agreed that the Concorde's image has been tarnished by Tuesday's crash but that the jetliner will rise from the ashes of the disaster.

"Just like the other tragic crashes, as time passes, the shock will heal," said Zafar Khan, a London-based aerospace analyst for the French bank, Societe Generale. "I don't see it having any other long term effect on the psyche of air travelers."

Yet within hours of the crash, the French began mourning the death of the Concorde, a mix of technology and elegance that was the pride of this Gallic nation.

"It was 31 years old. For France, it is a day of mourning. ... It will remain the myth of the beautiful white bird," Le Figaro said.

But even before the tragedy there had been complaints about the Concorde, the expense it took to run it and whether it was environmentally unsound.

Air France had a fleet of six Concordes -- now five -- while British Airways operates seven. The British carrier resumed several of its Concorde flights a day after the crash, while the French Transport Ministry grounded Air France's Concordes, giving no indication as to when they may fly again.

Environmentalists have long denounced the Concorde since its maiden voyage in 1969 as noisy and environmentally unsound. The luxury airliner guzzles 220 pounds of fuel a minute and has come under criticism as contributing to the deterioration of the ozone layer.

In its early days, residents near New York's John F. Kennedy Airport filed lawsuits to block the noisy new aircraft, known for its thundering roar.

Noel Mamere, a senior member of France's Green Party on Friday urged France to shelve the Concorde, calling it the "sacred monster of Gaullism" -- a reference to the ancient empire and a time of Western European dominance.

On Saturday, investigators combed through wreckage and examined debris in high-tech labs to confirm whether the explosion of a tire on the Concorde could have triggered the chain of events that led to an engine fire and crash shortly after takeoff.

A tire blew out on the supersonic jet's undercarriage as it raced down the runway for takeoff, France's Transport Ministry confirmed Friday. Police also discovered the corpse of a new victim buried beneath the rubble of a hotel struck by the jet.

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