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Concorde crash may mean the end

By ROLAND FLAMINI

WASHINGTON, July 26 -- The Italian daily newspaper La Stampa Wednesday called the Concorde supersonic passenger plane "the Titanic of our time." Like the transatlantic liner, the plane was a safe, elegant, technological marvel that seemed indestructible, the paper said in a reference to Concorde's almost impeccable safety record.

Also, like the Titanic, the Concorde has become identified with a rich, exclusive clientele. Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Hugh Grant, Madonna, Giorgio Armani, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Fiat automobile chairman Gianni Agnelli are regular Concorde passengers, La Stampa said.

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The Titanic sank in the freezing waters of the Atlantic in April 1912 after a freak collision with an iceberg. The Air France Concorde's "iceberg" Tuesday was the faulty number two engine in which a part from the reverse thrust mechanism had been replaced shortly before takeoff. Minutes after the plane began its takeoff run, that engine burst into flames, and the Concorde crashed.

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The Turin paper was not alone in making the point that the crash of New York-bound flight AF 4590 may signal the end of the Concorde era

When the Concorde went into service for thefirst time nearly three decades ago it was hailed as the dawn of a new age in commercial aviation. The joint Anglo-French venture -- a technological marvel that was a decade in development -- was supposed to make crossing the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound a matter of course.

But one aviation specialist said Wednesday, "The aviation world wasn't ready for supersonic flight." British Airways and Air France added the plane to their respective fleets -- not without some arm-twisting from their respective governments. However, 16 other potential buyers dropped out one after the other.

As a result, although the joint producers, British Aerospace in Britain and Aerospatiale in France, had planned an initial production of 74 aircraft, only 20 were ever produced, according to published reports.

Airlines in the United States cited ecological reasons -- high noise levels, harm to the ozone layer from flying at high altitudes, etc. -- and high fuel consumption as the reasons for not ordering the plane. But at the time British and French aviation sources privately grumbled that the United States was protecting its own industry.

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Shortly after the Concordes went into service in January 1976, Boeing cancelled its own plans to develop a supersonic passenger aircraft, concentrating instead on producing the mass-transit, subsonic 747s, capable of carrying 400 passengers. Without other buyers, the 100-seat Concordes from the start represented a financial loss for both manufacturers and operators, but were kept in service for political and status reasons.

Originally the brainchild of Gen. Charles de Gaulle to boost French technological prestige (with the British going along somewhat reluctantly), the Concorde became the exclusive trans-Atlantic taxi plane of the very rich -- and the dream of less privileged travelers. For a round trip fare of $9,000, passengers on the New York flights get impeccable service, gourmet meals, fine champagne -- and the prospect of reaching their destination in an almost miraculous three and a half hours.

Now, the crash has focused attention on the condition of the fleet of 13 Concordes in service (six with Air France before the crash, seven with British Airways). Each has been flying for at least 20 years. The crashed Concorde's 12,000 hours of flight was typical of the number of flying hours racked up by each aircraft. Specialized maintenance crews lavish attention on the planes, and another seven grounded Concorde aircraft are kept to be cannibalized for spare parts.

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British and French aviation officials have downplayed the importance of the hairline cracks that have begun to appear on the wings of some of the planes now in service. They concede the cracks are a sign of age, but not a motive for grounding the planes.

But observers pointed out that no new aircraft had been added to the fleet since the early 1980s. And with an aging fleet, the problems are likely to multiply.

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