DAVID LEARMOUNT / LONDON & CHRISTINA MACKENZIE / PARIS End of an era as falling passengers also prompt decision to axe flights, which have not been profitable since 2000 crash

British Airways says that expected maintenance costs well above projections were behind the decision to phase out Concorde operations later this year. The airline announced jointly with Air France that they are to stop operating the 100-seat supersonic aircraft this year, the latter on 31 May and BA on 31 October.

BAchief operations officer Concorde Capt Mike Bannister says there was a three-way meeting between Air France, BA and manufacturer/spares supplier Airbus 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.

"We decided we had to plan for Concorde's successful retirement," says Bannister. BA adds that the meeting was "a few weeks ago", but the airline had already shelved the modifications mandated following the accident during take-off from Paris in July 2000 on the last two Concordes in its fleet of seven (Flight International, 18-24 March).

Air France quotes a 72% rise in maintenance costs, and Bannister says this is partly accounted for by the cost of fitting a small, unique fleet of aircraft with new mandatory equipment. For example a new cockpit security door costs as little as $25,000 on a Boeing aircraft, but $300,000 for a Concorde.

The two airlines have clearly had time to plan for their simultaneous announcements, because in the same statement about the aircraft's retirement BA launched a package of special Concorde flight offers. BA chief executive Rod Eddington says: "I am determined that we will make Concorde's final six months in the sky a time for celebration."

Air France chief executive Jean-Cyril Spinetta says Concorde loads have been running at 20% since the war in Iraq started, "but were only around 50% before that". He says Concorde was profitable until the accident in 2000, but "this has not been the case since operations started up again". Bannister says that the BA operation looked good at re-entry into service in November 2001, but "so much has happened since then". The take-up of premium fare services is 37% down, he says, "and Concorde is at the pinnacle of premium travel". He adds that BA, having operated Concorde since 1976, is preparing to place its Concordes with museums.

Having been "flooded with calls from the public, including BA staff, to see if we could keep Concorde flying", Virgin Atlantic's chairman Sir Richard Branson left open the possibility that the aircraft could survive.

"If, having examined the figures, Virgin Atlantic, with its lower cost base, believes it can make a success of it, we will be asking British Airways to give us the aircraft for the same price they were given them - £1 - together with the slots and other facilities they use," he said. "This might come to nothing, but I believe every effort should be made to keep Concorde flying as it is such an important symbol of British innovation."

Source: Flight International