Will the Concorde's Comeback Take Off?

It occured on July 25 of last year, but the images still seem vivid: an Air France Concorde bursts into flames and crashes while taking off near Paris, killing everyone on board.

So when the Concorde resumes commercial service this fall, more than a few people will be holding their breath.

The passengers on board, while confident, may feel a little unease until they've completed a flight safely. And executives and workers at Air France and British Airways, the two airlines operating the famous supersonic jets, will probably not feel relieved until their full fleets are running smoothly.

But European aviation authorities are expected this week to allow the Concorde to return to the skies, with new safety features to prevent a repeat of last year's disaster.

Even so, there's no guarantee that Concorde passengers will put the crash behind them and start snapping up the $11,000 round-trip tickets for trans-Atlantic flights — although airline officials think they will.

"We don't think it's going to be affected," says one Air France official about demand for the Concorde, adding that the airline has been in contact with the plane's regular passengers. "It's a pretty specific client list, and it's only 100 seats a day."

John Lampl, a vice president of corporate communications for British Airways, says his airline maintained "constant contact" with what he calls "our top 50 clients," and even held demonstrations in London and New York about the safety changes made to the planes.

"There are people who go 20, 30, 40 times a year," says Lampl of a group that includes "chairmen, presidents of companies, very senior people in investment banking firms." He expects them to keep taking advantage of the three-hour flights.

After the Crash, Changes

The ultra-fast planes will return to action one by one, after each passes inspection. There are currently 12 Concordes eligible for service: five Air France planes and seven belonging to British Airways. Lampl says British Airways hopes to resume once-a-day London-New York flights in each direction in October, after a month of test flights.

A fluky chain reaction was blamed for the July 2000 accident, the first since the Concorde was developed in the late 1960s. The Air France flight hit a piece of metal debris on the runway, puncturing a tire, which slammed into a fuel tank, causing a rupture and sending fuel into the intake of one of the jet's engines. The engine caught fire and the plane slammed into the ground soon after takeoff.

All 109 people aboard the plane were killed, along with four people on the ground in the town of Gonesse, near Charles De Gaulle airport, just north of Paris.

Airbus, the manufacturer of the Concorde, has upgraded each of the jets in an effort to prevent the type of accident that caused last year's crash, by strengthening the wings, reinforcing the fuel tanks, and changing the type of tires used.

The crash also led to an expensive settlement between Air France and the families of the deceased, although the official amount was not disclosed.

New Habitat for the Jet Set

Despite the high price tag on each Concorde seat, the economics of supersonic transport have never been especially lucrative for British Airways and Air France.

Both airlines had taken to leasing out Concordes for charter flights — including the group aboard the plane that crashed last year — at more than $40,000 per hour in use, although Lampl says British Airways will not resume charter flights until its regular trans-Atlantic schedule has been restored.

So in an attempt to make sure that passengers return, British Airways has also spent $40 million refurbishing the interiors of their Concorde jets, which featured relatively spartan decoration despite their luxury cachet.

British Airways also hired British designed Terence Conran, known for founding the Habitat chain of furnishing stores, to redesign the Concorde flight lounge at New York's John F. Kennedy airport, and hopes their efforts will add to the plane's appeal.

Fast Plane, Slow Economy

It remains to be seen, though, if safety improvements and interior decorating will be enough to ensure that the business leaders and high-end jet-setters who have comprised the Concorde's core clientele will want to keep flying, especially in the midst of a worldwide economic dip.

The global economy has slumped considerably since the Air France crash, and most airlines have had a difficult year, as business travel has dropped sharply. But in theory, the demand for luxury goods is relatively unaffected by economic slowdowns. Will that apply to Concorde tickets as well?

"Business class has been affected by the economy," admits the Air France official. "But travel in first class hasn't fallen off, because they [high-end passengers] are always going to buy first class."

The official acknowledges that some business executives began using the Concorde during the economic boom of the late 1990s, but concludes, "They're not our consistent clients, like the World Bank or fashion designers. Those people are always going to be there."