The Concorde's Uncertain Future

The Concorde has always symbolized glamor, the jet set and Hollywood. But in the aftermath of the Paris Air France crash, the elite jet has suddenly acquired another distinction: a statistically alarming fatal accident rate compared to more common passenger aircraft. While the comparison may be unfair, the reason is simple: according to American aviation experts, in the quarter-century since the first Concorde came off an Anglo-French production line, all the Concordes put together have flown a total of about 80,000 flights. By contrast, the world's most widely used airplane, the stubby, short-hop Boeing 737, makes 80,000 flights or more every week.

Thus the fatal crash--the airplane's first--is a serious blot on the faster-than-sound airplane's heretofore impressive safety record. Other widely used modern passenger aircraft, including the most modern Boeing and Airbus jets, have roughly one and a half fatal accidents for every one million flights. The Paris crash is the first fatal accident in the Concorde's 24 year history of carrying passengers--but it occurred before the entire fleet of Concordes had even accumulated 100,000 flights between them. On the numbers alone, then, the Concorde has abruptly become several times more dangerous than more pedestrian craft.

On top of this, even before the Paris crash, experts say the Concorde fleet was beginning to show its age. Over the years, Concordes have experienced incidents in which pieces of the airplanes' control surfaces came off in flight. In one October 1998 incident recorded by the US National Transportation Safety Board, the crew of a London-New York Concorde flight felt a "thump," followed by a buzz, as the plane flew over the Atlantic Ocean near Newfoundland at an altitude of 54,700 feet. After the plane landed uneventfully at New York's JFK Airport, it was discovered that about half of the lower section of the tail's rudder panel apparently had fallen off in flight.

According to purported internal British Airways documents leaked last year to the British press, between August 1998 and July 1999, 130 incidents involving Concordes were reported, ranging from engine and control system problems to smoke warnings. In l998, according to London's Sunday Times, Concorde operators reported at least 10 aborted takeoffs. And only last weekend, it was reported that miniscule cracks had appeared on the wings of all seven of British Airways Concordes, leading to the temporary grounding of one of them for repairs. (All Concordes were temporarily grounded.) One early theory investigators are considering about the Paris crash is that a left side engine came apart--for reasons still unknown--and debris ripped into the wing, igniting fuel in the wing tank and making the plane impossible to fly.

In the past British Airways and Air France have both indicated that they believe their Concorde fleets still have several years more service to go. But airline analysts are already predicting that the Paris crash could scare off some of the Concorde's rarefied client base. At $10,000 for a full-fare round trip between the US and Europe, the Concorde's passenger list already was limited largely to international sports stars, showbusiness celebrities and wealthy businessmen intent on making intercontinental day-trips. While such travelers undoubtedly embrace more risk than average, it remains to be seen whether that attitude will apply to the cold hard statistics of air travel.