Will Concorde Fly?

6 minute read

On Tuesday July 17 at 2:18 p.m. a plane dubbed Alpha Foxtrot took off from London’s Heathrow Airport two minutes ahead of its official departure time. It landed at its destination three hours and 20 minutes later — right on schedule. In a summer marked by all-day flight delays and cheek-by-jowl airport queues, many European travelers might ruefully call that fact alone a minor miracle. For British Airways the successful verification flight was a flash of good news on a day when CEO Rod Eddington was warning shareholders that his business faces “testing times.” That’s because the Alpha Foxtrot is no ordinary airliner. It’s a Concorde, the first refurbished and safety-enhanced jet to take supersonic flight since the planes were grounded a year ago in the aftermath of the fatal Air France crash near Paris. British Airways thinks Concorde could start ferrying high-fare customers across the Atlantic again by late summer or autumn. Air France is likely to resume service around the same time.

Even though 99.999% of Europeans are unlikely ever to fly aboard a jet that can cost upwards of $9,000 for a New York round-trip fare, the Concorde is probably the only passenger airliner that people actually love. (Glaring exception: those understandably testy Parisians and Londoners who live below the noisy birds’ flight path.) There’s that distinctive dropped nose. The statesmen-and-supermodels glamour. And the warm glow of national pride in a plane so fast that it can land at jfk an hour and a half before it took off from Heathrow. “The British feel it’s very much a British aircraft, even though it’s half French,” says Colin Mitchell of Goodwood Travel, which booked charters in which passengers simply rode the Concorde in a circle — Heathrow to Heathrow in an hour and 40 minutes — for about $1,100. The plane’s near-flawless safety record from its first commercial flight in 1976 until last year’s accident, which killed 113 people, added to its legend.

Concorde benefited from, and then became the victim of, the statistical illusion of a small sample set. With just 13 Concordes in the sky, the possibility that one would go down was far lower than the possibility of an accident with, say, a Boeing 777 — British Airways alone has 45 of those — even if you assume both planes are equally safe. After the crash, of course, the math changed. “If one [out of 13] crashes, that is a hell of a percentage,” says BA director of marketing Martin George. If you can just as easily buy a first class ticket, and skip Concorde’s notoriously cramped cabin, shrieking noise and jet-fuel fragrance, you might fairly ask, why play those odds? (And in a falling stock market, why not save a few thousand bucks?) So successfully relaunching the Concorde may prove to be as much a feat of marketing as of engineering.

British Airways is leaving nothing to chance. The airline went to work on its most frequent flyers almost as soon as the plane was grounded. Several BA senior executives were each assigned three or four top flyers to call once a month. Next, recalls Ronnie Hampel, chairman of United Busi-ness Media, who has flown Concorde as many as 20 times a year, came “three or four letters. Then notices and reports on the technical progress and new interior designs.” BA chief Eddington personally signed the letters to about 200 customers, says George.

In March, BA invited 50 favored customers and their guests to a party-cum-safety briefing at a hangar near Heathrow. Guests got to inspect both the safety modifications being made to Alpha Foxtrot and the new cabin decor in a second Concorde. BA chief Concorde pilot Mike Bannister, who flew the plane last week, and a senior engineer were on hand to explain in detail what happened in Paris and the $24 million worth of safety measures designed to prevent such a disaster from happening again. Air France won’t comment on its efforts to soothe flyers, but seems to be taking a similar, if understandably more low-key, approach. John Demsey, president of MAC Cosmetics, says he got a call from Air France on his Manhattan line shortly after the crash. “I believed them,” say Demsey. “I trust the plane’s record.”

As with most airline crashes, the one at Gonesse on July 25 last year was the result of a snowballing series of events. The Concorde’s tire hit a strip of metal on the Charles de Gaulle runway. Flying rubber from the tire hit the bottom of the plane’s wing, which is honeycombed with fuel tanks. A shockwave through the kerosene fuel opened a hole in the tank about the size of a sheet of office paper. Aviation kerosene isn’t highly flammable in normal circumstances. Says a BA technical spokesman, “You can stand in a pool of it and light matches and they’ll usually just go out.” (Don’t try this at home.) But with 100 liters per second of the stuff pouring out, a fire ignited.

The key new modification on the Concorde is a thin lining of Kevlar — which is used in bulletproof vests — in the fuel tanks. Surprisingly, only a few of the Concorde’s tanks will be lined — those which ballistic tests have shown are vulnerable to such tire damage — and the lining can’t totally prevent a leak. But BA says that a reduced flow of about one liter per second is safe enough. Refurbished Concordes will also get armor plating around some of the electric wiring, which could be a source of ignition for a fire, and, pending more tests, reinforced radial tires.

Will this be enough to put the Concorde set’s minds at ease? Irwin Stelzer, a Sunday Times columnist and Rupert Murdoch confidant who shuttles between New York and London, recalls: “I was with an investment banker the night of the French disaster. We were both booked back on the British Concorde the next day, and we both got calls from our wives saying, Don’t do it.'” Stelzer didn’t — “I always do what my wife requests” — but says he had no qualms himself. In fact, all of the frequent flyers Time contacted, hard-nosed business types who do cost-benefit analyses in their sleep, couldn’t wait to see the Concorde return to the skies.

Still, the Concorde era cannot last much longer. The current Concordes have about a decade left in their service lives, and Boeing’s much hyped plans for a new “sonic cruiser,” which in fact won’t reach the speed of sound, suggest that a new generation of supersonic passenger flight is something of the distant future. So if you’ve got $9,000 to spare, enjoy it while you can.

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