Crash of the Concorde doesn't dim its luster

Supersonic: European airliner made historic advances in flight, international cooperation.

July 27, 2000

CONCORDE'S great work is done. Research and development in Europe goes forward on myriad fronts, unconstrained by any one nation's limitations.

The crash Monday of a Concorde, one of 20 built and 13 in service, casts a pall on the image of the supersonic airliner. The first mishap in 31 years of flight -- a dreadful tragedy -- does not undo its achievement.

Flawed economically, Concorde was a technological and political triumph. Whether this disaster cuts short a niche luxury service that Air France had projected until 2007 and British Airways until 2010, may in the end be a marketing, not safety, decision.

In 1962, British and French governments started research and development of a supersonic airliner, overcoming differences of national character and corporate culture. Test flights began in 1969, commercial service in 1976. Europe was ahead of America.

During early development, London kicked out more than 100 Soviet diplomats for industrial spying. The Soviet rip-off Tu-144 flew before the Concorde, crashed in 1973 near Paris, reportedly crashed again in 1977, and vanished from trans-Siberian service.

The Tupolev company in Moscow is even now doing research on a possible replacement. U.S. corporate efforts were dropped in 1971 and 1999 as unprofitable.

The roughly $2.5 billion development costs of Concorde were a gift of British and French taxpayers. The planes were given to Air France and British Airways. In an age of mass travel, the airlines fly them for a few wealthy and self-indulgent passengers, who pay 20 times the price of economy flights.

Concorde was engineering genius, using the afterburner technology of fighter jets, flying twice as fast and high as other airliners. Military planes do that a few minutes at a time. Concorde keeps it up three hours, flying from London to New York in the time a speeding bus gets there from Baltimore.

As a cooperative venture, Concorde proved a forerunner to Airbus Industrie, the Channel Tunnel and other European projects. British pride in it made joining what is now the European Union possible.

Concorde was a bet on faster. The market rewarded bigger. Concorde was also a bet on international cooperation. That paid off. Thirty years ago, Concorde was in a class by itself. It still is.

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