The Concorde accident in Paris may well have brought nearer the day when the world will lose its only supersonic airliner. That may prove a sadder moment for air transport's romantics than for its business strategists.

Concorde may still return to the air, despite the Air France crash. Yet its current grounding is a harsh reminder that there must inevitably come a day - later if not sooner - when the world will lose its one and only supersonic airliner. And if so, does that really matter?

The jury is still out on whether Concorde itself can indeed recover from its first fatal accident. Certainly the publicity has been intense, not helped by the drama of film footage showing flames streaming from the world's most recognisable aircraft as it headed into a hotel on the outskirts of Paris Charles de Gaulle. With painful timing, the accident happened at the end of July as the aerospace community was gathered at the Farnborough air show.

The broad cause of the crash seems relatively settled. A piece of debris shot up from the undercarriage to puncture the wing and the fuel tanks ignited. That is an inherent risk given the aircraft's breathtaking delta-wing design.

What is key is the nature of the debris. If, as it seems, a piece of tyre alone was responsible, then it becomes difficult to see how the problem can be fixed. So the UK safety authorities played safe and the seven British Airways Concordes joined the remaining six Air France aircraft on the ground.

BA has since pledged to get Concorde back in the air and Air France has followed suit, if perhaps a little less fervently. At present it is not clear whether that is going to be realistic goal, despite the passion which this unique aircraft still inspires. Certainly the media spotlight will remain sharply focused on any glitches that the aircraft encounters, however minor. That was the case before the crash.

Even if the grounding is not the end, the time must surely come when the remaining Concordes make their way into museum collections. Engineers have lovingly extended the life of these aircraft to take them through another dozen years or so. But at 20-35 years old they cannot last for ever. The economic arguments for retirement would have long since grounded a lesser airliner by now. Maintenance bills are high and flight hours scarce. Much of the flying has been on charters for those seeking the glamour and excitement of a supersonic experience. That was rather the point of Concorde.

It was conceived in an age when flying was still a life-style statement: when the jet set wanted speed and exclusivity. That world was already dying even by the time that Concorde entered service. By then, Boeing had launched the 747 and started to open air transport to the masses. The mass-market won. Concorde was out of time, albeit still capable of turning heads.

Best estimates are that BA and Air France earn a reasonable profit on their supersonic operations, but it is a fringe activity and an increasingly tough one given the rising maintenance cost. The stronger attraction of Concorde has continued to be the glamour. Unfortunately, that alone is no longer enough. However much BA and Air France may earn from their Concorde passengers, they earn much more from the regular business clientele on subsonic flights.

In the end, the supersonic experiment has been no more than an exciting diversion. Boeing chairman Phil Condit put it well during Farnborough. He started his long career in aerospace researching the possibility of viable supersonic air transport and confidently expects to retire with the search still going on.

The technology is there and so is the potential development money - just look at the cash Airbus is raising for the A3XX. What is missing is the market. Supersonic travel is still too expensive and experimental to serve mainstream markets. Neither is airspeed alone any longer the key factor in a better travel experience. At a guess, if there is a supersonic market, then it is not for an aircraft bigger than Concorde, but smaller. Perhaps an ultra-fast business jet allowing senior executives to hop between continents at will.

Concorde's passing should be mourned, but for the romance it has inspired rather than the loss of a useful technology. Devotees have pointed out that this day could well mark the first time that the airline industry has taken a technological step backwards. That may be true, but it is not necessarily cause to fret. Today, it is clever business strategy and not clever engineering that the airline industry needs most.

Source: Airline Business