Nine grand

October 24, 2003

SWIFT, SMALL and elegant, the high-flying Concorde retires today. It was built to bring the Space Age down to Earth (or at least closer to Earth), but it flew headfirst into the Discount Age. Air travel, once an elite preserve, became a mass market. In our world, the cheap trumps the quick every time.

The Space Age - there's a throwback. The Concorde was built by the British and French to fly faster than the speed of sound; they designed it in the 1950s and 1960s, when everything was looking up, futurewise.

It was supposed to be the shape of things to come, and a very sleek shape it was, too. It was supposed to stir excitement in the traveling public. It was supposed to be a leap into tomorrow.

But by the time the Concorde, which was years in production, finally went into service in 1976, a funny thing had happened. People weren't as bowled over by know-how as they once had been. They didn't worship Progress in quite the same way. The public - the public that lived down here on the ground - understood that the Concorde wasn't for them, because even if they had some reason to get to London in four hours, which hardly anyone did, there was no way they were paying $9,000 for the ride.

The Concorde, once it took off, wasn't a step forward for Western civilization. It was a perk for CEOs and rock stars.

For months, the Concorde was kept out of New York by the protests of the people of Howard Beach, in Queens. They didn't like the noise that shook their modest houses from rafter to foundation. Who did these people think they were? Finally, Congress stepped in and said the Concorde could fly, but only at subsonic speeds over land.

That was the point when it started to become clear that the Concorde wasn't likely to amount to much. In the end, only 16 were ever built. A project to build an American supersonic plane had already been shelved because, well, who needed it?

So the Concorde zipped about on its own, gulping fuel and destroying huge swaths of the ozone layer. It turned heads at Heathrow and JFK and Charles DeGaulle because it was cool, and always looked as if it had just been somewhere, fast. It allowed the passenger with the $300 economy ticket gazing out the porthole of a Boeing 767 to fantasize for a moment about a world of style and celebrity. But the culture that gave birth to the Concorde is gone; soon, the only place you'll find the plane is in a museum. That's OK, because that's where it belongs.

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