A combination of poor loads and rising maintenance costs has led Air France and British Airways to announce that they will cease operating their Concorde fleets.

British Airways is planning its final Concorde flights at the end of October, while Air France will stop its Concorde operations from 31 May unless bookings for the premium product pick up substantially. Both carriers have struggled to return their Concorde operations to profitability since they re-entered service in November 2001 following safety modifications made after an AirFrance Concorde crashed on 25 July 2000.

Air France puts the cost of retiring its four Concordes at €50-60 million ($53-63 million), while BA said the retirement of its seven aircraft will mean a write-down in the March quarter of £84 million ($131 million) against the value of spares and modification work already carried out.

Air France chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta said Concorde's operating costs had risen by 58% since the crash in 2000. Air France says maintenance costs on the aircraft had risen by more than 70%, in part due to the need to make fresh modifications on the ageing aircraft, including cockpit security doors.

The decision comes at a time when premium travel demand remains low. Spinetta said its latest Concorde flights were achieving load factors of only 20%, while recently BA was only taking bookings for up to half of the 100 seats in the aircraft in case it has to rebook passengers on regular first-class flights in the event of operational problems

Both carriers regret the withdrawal of their marketing icon, and note that it marks the end of an era of supersonic travel. However: "Operating Concorde has become a severely and structurally loss-making operation," said Spinetta. According to BA chief executive Rod Eddington: "Bringing forward Concorde's retirement is a prudent business decision at a time when we are having to make difficult decisions right across the airline."

Concorde, which first entered commercial service in 1976, was certified to operate until 2009. Once retired the airlines plan to make their Concordes available to museums.

Source: Airline Business