The slim, droop-nosed, supersonic Concorde is getting a new lease on life here, despite predictions a decade ago that it would never succeed. Its hold on the imagination remains extraordinary even after seven years in the air. The sports car of the sky, it has been called. A metal paper dart. A silver bird.
It is not just an airplane but an idea. It still causes housewives to run outside and gaze up at 10:45 every weekday morning in southern England as its distinctive silvery shape floats southward from Heathrow Airport toward the Atlantic Ocean. There it leaps to twice the speed of sound and reaches New York in 31/2 hours, faster than the sun itself.
According to a spokesman for British Airways (BA), which flies six of these small (84-foot wingspan, 200-ton weight) planes between London, New York, and Washington each week:
- The Concorde is at last making a profit: (STR)5 million ($7.5 million) last year, and possibly (STR)10 million ($15 million) this year.
- It may be about to open new routes. A decision will be made this winter on whether to extend the London-Washington route to Miami in the spring of 1984. BA is also considering resuming flights to the Middle East and starting a service to West Africa.
- Groups from corporations to car dealers to specialty travel agents are chartering individual Concordes more and more often for glamorous, prestige trips lasting as little as one hour or as long as a day.
General Motors/Vauxhall, for instance, is chartering a Concorde Oct. 29 to fly dealers to Bordeaux in France for a day as a reward for selling record numbers of cars this year. Rank Xerox recently paid between (STR)80,000 and (STR)100,000 ($120,000-$150,000) to fly customers and the press to New York to launch a new product.
Simply to fly 100 people out to sea, jump to supersonic flight, and come back 60 minutes later is about (STR)25,000 ($37,500) or (STR)250 ($375) per seat.
A travel agency such as the one in London that whisks 100 people to Cairo in the morning (21/2 hours), tours the pyramids, and comes back to London the same evening charges about (STR)800 ($1,200) a seat.
''Wouldn't miss it,'' said the elderly relative of a friend of ours as she headed for Heathrow for a day in Egypt. ''Chance of a lifetime. . . .''
The Concorde still has critics who call it an expensive and unnecessary toy. Congress rejected the American SST (Supersonic Transport) in the mid-1970s. Air France no longer flies to Rio de Janeiro via Dakar, Senegal, because it is too expensive. BA eliminated its Bahrain and Singapore flights for the same reason.
BA's New York flights are 70 percent full, but the three-a-week Washington service is only 40 to 50 percent filled (hence the proposal to extend it to Miami).
BA has cut 20,000 people from its staff in recent years. This and other economy moves have helped to push the Concorde into profit for the first time.
Meanwhile, many a British heart dreams of a Concorde flight.
While Elizabeth McDougall was loading clothes into her washing machine in Glascow one day in late August, she heard on the radio that a Concorde was standing half-empty on the runway. BA was operating it that day to publicize a new ''super shuttle'' flight within Britain.
''I grabbed my handbag and ran out of the house,'' she said later.
She arrived at the airport just in time. Forty-eight minutes later she was at London airport, telephoning her husband to ask him to take the clothes out of the machine and to cook his own dinner.
It was a lifelong ambition fulfilled for (STR)58 ($87), even if her Concorde had to fly subsonically over crowded England.
The plane constantly attracts publicity. When a club in Essex wanted to raise money for the handicapped the other day, it had 200 volunteers haul the first prototype, the 001, five miles around Duxfield airfield in Cambridgeshire where it is on public display - and photographers had a field day.
Businessmen are not the only ones who pay the (STR)2,274 roundtrip between London and New York. Children buy tickets for parents to mark 25th and 50th wedding anniversaries. Parents give trips to children for 21st birthdays. Couples take a Concorde flight instead of painting their homes or buying a new car.
''Yes, there's a recession,'' says BA's Norman Lornie. ''But there's an astonishing amount of disposable income around.
''Another thing: When times are hard and the pressure to produce is on, people say, 'I must have that two weeks' holiday.' ''