Arguably, the end for Concorde came not with the simultaneous announcement by British Airways and Air France on 10 April 2003 that they were ceasing services, but almost three years previously.
The tragic crash of Air France flight AF4590 on 25 July 2000 a few minutes after its departure from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport for New York’s JFK – with the loss of 109 on board and four people on the ground – caused a crisis of confidence.
An airliner crash in western Europe would have attracted huge attention at the best of times, but the loss of one of the iconic aircraft propelled the story onto newspaper front pages around the world for days.
Air France, followed by British Airways, suspended services as the crash investigation got under way. And despite re-entering service in autumn 2001 after safety modifications, load factors struggled to recover. A global downturn in demand for all forms of premium flying did not help.
Before the announcement of its retirement, Air France’s aircraft were flying with load factors as low as 20%, while BA was only taking bookings for up to half of the 100 seats in the aircraft in case it had to rebook passengers on regular first-class flights in the event of operational problems.
Air France chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta said Concorde's operating costs had risen by 58% since the crash in 2000. Maintenance costs on the aircraft had also risen by more than 70%, in part due to the need to make fresh modifications on the ageing aircraft, including cockpit security doors in the post-9/11 environment.
BA chief operations officer for Concorde Capt Mike Bannister said there had been a three-way meeting between Air France, BA and manufacturer/spares supplier Airbus a few weeks prior to the announcement at which it became clear that Airbus forecasts of Concorde maintenance costs over the next few years were £40 million ($62 million) in excess of airline projections.
That persuaded both airlines to pull the plug. Air France ceased supersonic services on 31 May, while British Airways continued flying until 24 October.
Perhaps inevitably, the last few weeks saw hefty load factors as people who had always promised themselves a trip on the aircraft booked seats.
Air France Concorde F-BTSD flew for the last time on 14 June when it was ferried from Paris Charles De Gaulle airport to Le Bourget during that year’s Paris air show, for display at the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace.
After taxiing in and closing down the engines for the last time, the crew posed on the wing for photographers. Onlookers noted that they were clearly reluctant to leave the aircraft.
BA, which had always promoted the aircraft more actively – and claimed prior to the crash to be making a profit from it – went for a last hurrah with a farewell tour around the UK, before undertaking three final flights: from Edinburgh, around the Bay of Biscay and the final scheduled flight from New York on 24 October.
The three flights were marshalled into an aerial procession for consecutive landings at Heathrow and allowed to fly lower than normal over London on their approach to give the best possible view to onlookers.
Following farewell ceremonies, the aircraft were ferried out over the following months to aviation museums around the globe. The very final flight of the type came on November 26, when it flew from Heathrow to Filton airfield, Bristol, where it had been built.
Although various groups have mooted restoring an example and getting it back in the air, the reality is that, without a valid airworthiness certificate and without the backing of Airbus, on which the maintenance support role had devolved, the remaining examples will remain firmly on terra firma. French supporters hope to be able to taxi the Le Bourget example on special occasions.
Murdo, there will also be a pic of the Air France crew on the wing of the last AF flight into Le Bourget in the FDN Paris 2003 show dailies, if there’s any way of tracking that down in the archive.