British Airways cites low demand in dumping route


October 15, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

It defied the recession, much as it had the speed of sound. But hard times finally have caught up with the aviation toy of the rich and the royal.

British Airways said yesterday that it is suspending its thrice-weekly supersonic Concorde service between Washington and London, ending nearly two decades of flying twice the speed of sound between the capital cities.

The sleek, droopy-nosed Concorde will continue, however, its twice-daily service from New York to London.

At a time the world's airline industry has lost billions of dollars and grounded hundreds of planes, the Concorde has endured. In a growing era of discount fares, it has been a flashy reminder that the wealthy will pay nearly any price for luxury and convenience.

But the tough economic times have reined in high-paid executives -- and top government officials -- who once thought nothing of spending $7,800 to hasten the 3,660-mile journey between Washington Dulles International Airport and London's Heathrow Airport.

"It's now commercially unviable," John Lampl, a spokesman for British Airways in New York, said yesterday.

In fact, for some time, the Concorde has been taking off from Dulles with a third, or fewer, of its 120 seats filled. Once, it flew with only five passengers.

But if jet-setters are dwindling in Washington, there's still apparently an ample supply in New York.

The Concorde takes off two-thirds full twice a day from John F. Kennedy International Airport, Mr. Lampl said. And there's a growing demand for charter flights to the Caribbean, South America and Barbados.

"A charter flight at JFK can make a lot more money [than a flight to London from Dulles]," he added.

As a result, British Airways is permanently stationing one of its Concordes at JFK to take advantage of the charter market. Through a tour operator, it will offer 12 weekly flights to Barbados.

Airfare and hotel accommodations for a week will cost between $2,700 and $5,500, depending on the hotel.

And the supersonic Concorde will slice the four-hour trip in half.

Already, the Concorde operates a $1,200 charter day trip from London to the Pyramids in Egypt and a weekly winter service to Barbados from London. It has operated three round-the-world charters -- for a mere $49,000 each.

Developed jointly in the 1960s by the British and the French, the British Concorde 002 made its first flight on April 9, 1969, three months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It broke the sound barrier six months later.

The sleek aircraft, with delta-like wings, first took off from Dulles in May 1976. Traveling at 1,350 mph -- twice the speed of sound -- it chopped more than two hours off the typical six-hour trans-Atlantic flight.

The Washington service was the first Concorde route between Britain and the United States. Nearly two decades after the "sports car in the air" first captured the public's imagination, people still come to watch it take off.

British Airways insists the Concorde operation overall has been profitable since 1986, a year before the company shifted from government ownership to the public. It won't disclose revenue or passenger figures.

After the Persian Gulf war in 1991, the Concorde service was suspended for several months in Washington.

And yesterday, British Airways refused to permanently call it quits in Washington.

"We never say eliminated," said Mr. Lampl.

"Who knows? A year from now, two years from now, there may be a reason for the service to resume."

Ending its U.S. to London route doesn't spell doom for future of supersonic travel either, he said. British Airways flies seven of the world's 14 supersonic planes; Air France, which owns the other seven, says it has no plans to eliminate its daily service between Paris and New York.

Both British and French manufacturers have proposed building a second generation of Concordes that could carry as many as 280 passengers and travel 1,550 mph.

"There is a future for supersonic travel," Mr. Lampl said.

"Hopefully, manufacturers will come up with a successor when the Concorde expires in 10 or 12 years. If there isn't, it will be a step backwards."

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