27 February 2003

Concorde heads for early retirement

By Paul Marston

Concorde may be retired early because demand has slumped since its return to service 15 months ago, British Airways said yesterday.

The airline's fleet of seven supersonic aircraft has safety approval to fly until at least 2009, but current losses and the gloomy outlook for premium business travel have persuaded BA to consider grounding the jets sooner.

The Concordes - all more than 20 years old - have high maintenance costs and a fuel consumption three times as great as conventional jets.

At the time of the Air France crash in Paris in 2000, BA was making about £30 million annual profit from Concorde's twice-daily flights between London and New York, a winter Barbados service and charter contracts. But when flights resumed in November 2001, the once-a-day New York route struggled to fill 60 of its 100 seats. The economic slowdown has led to the shelving of plans to restore the second daily transatlantic service.

A spokesman said: "We're looking at when Concorde should retire." No decisions had been taken, but one could come later this year.

BA has already warned that it will incur a loss this year if there is war in Iraq and it is concerned about a possible long-term fall in demand for transatlantic travel among Americans. Cost-cutting has reduced its workforce by 13,000 in the past 18 months. Supersonic Concorde's time advantage over other airliners has also been undermined slightly by the popularity of flat beds and greater personal space in subsonic business class.

Virgin Atlantic, which has expressed interest in acquiring a Concorde from Air France, will be awaiting the BA decision. An official said: "Concorde is an icon of world aviation. If British Airways calls time, we would certainly review the economics to see if we could make it work."