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Concorde, An Unexpected Success, Marks 10th Anniversary

January 20, 1986 GMT

LONDON (AP) _ Ten years after its detractors branded it an enormous white elephant, the Concorde is the fastest, most luxurious and - to many - the world’s most beautiful airliner. It makes money, too.

The Anglo-French supersonic jetliner, which made its first commercial flights on Jan. 21, 1976, is a success story even though early dreams that it would revolutionize international air travel failed to materialize.

After years of losses and a $2.8-billion government development cost that has been almost completely written off, financial winds have turned in the plane’s favor. The Concorde brought a $17.3-million profit to British Airways last year and a profit of $8.8 million to Air France in 1984, the most recent year for which figures were available.

British Airways didn’t record profits from the Corcorde until 1982, and Air France until 1983.

The combined fleet of 14 Concordes has carried more than a million passengers over 90 million miles. They have flown into 85 cities, although they now fly only the profitable routes of Paris-New York, London-New York and London-Washington-Miami. British Airways also makes money on Concorde charter flights.

″We have turned a white elephant into our national flagship,″ says Capt. Brian Walpole, general manager of British Airways Concorde division.

With separate check-in facilities, six flight attendants, a menu including slices of smoked goose breast garnished with spiced fruits, and the very best champagne, traveling at more than 1,300 miles an hour isn’t Concorde’s only selling point.

″There is a certain aura about it, a prestige, there’s no doubt about it,″ says British Airways spokesman Bill Stevens.

Stevens described Concorde’s passengers as ″pop stars, company chairmen, lots of financial institution people, people in a hurry, people who don’t like to be in the air too long.

″A lot of people like to fly because of the prestige, but generally they fly it because they need to save time.″

They also have to be well-heeled. The one-way fare to cross the North Atlantic in 31/2 hours, half the time of a subsonic plane, is $2,076 - 20 percent more than the cost of a regular first-class fare.

Robert Runcie, archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, once remarked that he had never been closer to God than when flying in the sleek, delta-wing jet with the distinctive droop nose.

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Yet Concorde did not make subsonic flying obsolete. Its cost, relatively short range and low capacity of 100 passengers limited its appeal. It did not catch on with other airlines and is not being built any more.

The U.S. aerospace industry did not follow up with its own version, although the U.S. manufacturer McDonnell Douglas now is working on designs for an advanced supersonic transport.

Neither British Airways nor Air France sees any economic advantage in extending their Concorde routes, which at one time included Dakar, Senegal; Caracas, Venezuela; Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City.

British Airways says it plans to fly Concorde until the year 2000 and hopes the joint manufacturers, British Aerospace and France’s Aerospatiale, will design a new model before then.

″It’s got to have more range. It’s got to fly a bit further. It needn’t fly any faster,″ Walpole says.

″We’d also like to see about 200 passengers on the next airplane and I think it’s got to be quieter in the airport environment scene.″

The United States was an original partner in the Anglo-French Concorde project in 1962 but pulled out in 1971 because the Senate thought flight at twice the speed of sound was too expensive.

The project was initially estimated to cost $130 million, but the final figure reached $2.8 billion in development costs. Each government ended up putting in $1.44 billion to fund the project and subsidize the money-losing years. The money will never be fully recouped.

The skyrocketing budgets frightened successive British governments who tried to pull out, too. The French insisted on holding to a no-opt-out clause, and kept the British in the venture.

Environmentalists added to Concorde’s early problems, arguing that it was too noisy and would destroy the vital ozone layer in the atmosphere.

And the Americans, who the British claimed were jealous at having been beaten in the supersonic race, initially refused the Concorde landing rights.

Despite the problems, on Jan. 21, 1976, the Concorde carried its first fare-paying passengers from London to Bahrain and from Paris to Rio de Janiero. Later that year, the United States relented and allowed Concorde to land.

Its advocates believe Concorde has a future.

Says Capt. Walpole, ″from the Wright brothers onwards, man has always striven to go faster.″