The supersonic commercial airliner Concorde has just celebrated a sad anniversary. Six years after its maiden voyage from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, Air France announced it is ending Concorde flights to South America April 1.
The reason for dropping the three flights each week to Rio and the one each week to Caracas is straighforward enough: ''They weren't paying,'' explains Air France spokesman Jim Collins.
But the Concorde decision is more than a story of cut-and-dry economics. It shows that France's new Socialist government is not willing to pay for prestige items that it sees benefiting primarily the rich. With only first-class seats, Concorde's expense-account traffic was not dear to the new government's heart.
The trials of the Concorde have produced some bittersweet success for other sectors of the French air industry, however. The technological know-how and credibility brought by Concorde is at least partially responsible for the recent fine performance of the French-dominated consortium, Airbus, whose wide-body medium-range jets help to produce annual revenues of around $2.6 billion, and Dassault-Breguet, which is aggressively trying to expand its markets.
Before Francois Mitterrand and the Socialists, successive right-wing governments took special care in subsidizing Concorde and other prestige items that promoted class and high technology. Concorde was the epitome of their attempt to create a French reputation in high technology along with such traditional ''made in France'' exports as cognac, champagne, designer fashions, and perfume.
Mere prestige, though, seems to have become too expensive for the new French government. Concorde was supposed to revolutionize air travel, but instead it has sunk the French airline business into a financial mire.
Since it was conceived in 1962 by Britain and France, the plane has cost the two countries almost $7 billion.
Exorbitant ticket prices - more than $4,000 for a Paris-to-Rio ticket - and improvements in long-distance first-class subsonic service, such as installation of couchettes, have kept Concorde a loser. Last year it ran $2.8 million in the red, Air France spokesman Collins said. That was a loss the government could not stomach at a time when it was expecting a huge budget deficit.
So the government ended Concorde's South American service and now plans to make Concorde pay its way, Collins said. Most of the Concorde's loss came on the South American routes, he explained.
Two years ago nearly 65 percent of the Concorde seats to Rio and Caracus were occupied, last year only about 45 percent on the Rio runs and 36 percent to Caracus were filled.
Air France hopes that Concorde can break even or make a little profit on its remaining North American routes. It runs 11 flights a week to New York from Paris. Two of those flights continue to Mexico City, and another two to Washington.
''Concorde works well on these routes,'' Collins asserted. New York flights are about 65 percent filled, ''the viable commercial load.''
As a result, Collins emphasized that the government and Air France do not view this cutback as ''the beginning of Concorde's end,'' but many observers believe the supersonic jetliner's future remains dubious.
''Concorde, The Slow Death,'' headlined the weekly l'Express. ''Concorde will never be profitable,'' it said, explaining that the concentration of Air France's seven Concordes on the New York route ''risks aggravating the losses.''
Those Concordes will now have to divvy up the meager 11 flights per week as well as compete with British Air's seven Concordes on the New York trans-Atlantic crossing.
At the same time, though, the French government of Francois Mitterrand clearly is reluctant to completely shut down Concorde because it has brought so much prestige to the booming French aerospace industry.
Airbus, which learned from Concorde's experiences, has been the aerospace success story of the past decade. Developed by Aerospatiale, also Concorde's developer, more than 460 of the wide-body medium-range planes have been sold, including 34 to Eastern Airlines.
Aerospatiale and Dassault-Breguet, the other French aerospace giant, are expanding. Aerospatiale is making its presence felt in the helicopter market, and Dassault, maker of Mirage jets, in the executive jet field.