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Supersonic swan song

Friday, Concorde makes its last commercial flight. Its demise - and the failure of other similar planes - suggests that despite our go-go age, we have shelved supersonic travel for now.

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Not even stratospheric airfares - as high as $12,000 for a round trip between New York and Paris in recent years - could keep aloft the plane many in aviation call a technological marvel and a thrill to fly.

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"The problem with Concorde was that there was no market for it," says Thomas Heppenheimer, an aerospace engineer and author of the 1995 book "Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation."

After Sept. 11, 2001, when an already wobbling airline industry was dealt a blow, bookings dropped off. Even deep-pocket corporate clients, who had regularly offered Concorde flights to top executives as a perk, backed away, says Jeff Angel, a British Airways spokesman. "They began to say, 'We just can't spend that much.' "

In some ways, poor timing also tripped up America's own SST program at practically every stage of its evolution.

Just two years after sounding his bold 1961 call for America to shoot for the moon "within this decade," President Kennedy issued a similar call with regard to development of an American SST.

Aviation race

That call spurred Britain and France to start a program of their own. Overtaken by the US in early commercial aviation, the British were eager to make their mark in supersonic transport. In France, Charles de Gaulle worried about what he called "the American colonization of the air."

"It was not just technological imperative that drove Concorde," says Mr. Heppenheimer. "On both sides of the Channel, you had people who were very eager to try to leap ahead of the Yankees."

By 1962, Whitehall and the Quai d'Orsay had cemented a partnership and pooled their efforts. By 1969, Concorde, named by de Gaulle, was being test-flown. (A Russian SST flew in late 1968, but never carried passengers.)

The United States had a mock-up ready by 1971 - Boeing had beaten out Lockheed with its design around 1966 - one that seemed poised to trump the European superplane, as well.

"It was bigger, it was faster," says Heppenheimer. "However, there was this little problem in the halls of Congress, which was that people weren't exactly eager to turn the FAA into NASA."

Under Kennedy, the role of NASA - an agency that grew out of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics - had been expanded to include the actual development of rockets. Kennedy and later, President Johnson, had the idea that the same was to happen for the Federal Aviation Administration, says Heppenheimer.

Other observers cite a heated rivalry in the mid-1960s between the FAA's pro-SST chief, Najeeb Halaby, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara as the main reason Washington seized up over supersonic flight. Another problem: Boeing was meant to pick up 90 percent of the tab for the SST. But even government's limited involvement carried a cost. "SST [became] a government program, with all the problems of cost overruns that attend government programs," Heppenheimer says.

In 1971, Boeing added $1 billion to the anticipated cost of developing the plane. Congress, which had come to terms with the $1.3 billion already anticipated, bailed out.

Meanwhile, the environmental movement found itself in ascendancy - more bad news for SST, which was pilloried as an ozone-eater and a harbinger of the woes that adopting too much technology, too fast, might bring.