After 10 years of commercial flight, the supersonic Concorde has finally settled into a comfortable -- even profitable -- niche amid its subsonic siblings. Launched as graceful proof of Old World know-how in the new age of aviation, the Concorde quickly drew the reputation as the whitest of Europe's white elephants.
Not only had the French and British governments spent $6 billion to develop the plane, but once in operation it promptly began losing huge sums of money.
Now, Air France and British Airways, the only airlines to fly the plane, are actually making money on their routes. There is proud talk of the plane's technological spinoffs, and experts say it is not unthinkable that some day, someone might build a successor.
A ticket for one of Air France's 11 weekly flights between Paris and New York costs $4,296 round trip, about 17 percent above the regular first-class fare on a conventional aircraft. Some executives are willing to pay this, because the plane leaves Paris at 11 a.m. and arrives in New York at 8:45 a.m., allowing them a full day of work.
Last year, Air France reported an operating profit on Concorde of about $6.3 million on sales of some $60 million. British Airways estimated it made $12 million on sales of about $100 million.
No matter how the books are balanced or how the government subsidies are counted, Concorde is unlikely ever to pay back its development costs. But its developers and operators speak of other benefits of the plane.
``Is it not within the role of France to offer new things to the people of the world?'' asks Air France spokesman Franois Eldin. ``Not everything can be judged in terms of profit.''
The 10 years scientists spent developing the plane have brought technological spinoffs in the realms of metallurgy, aviation glass, and microswitches.
For the French aircraft builder, Aerospatiale, the Concorde project also made it much easier to develop its profitable Airbus, says Jos'e Audy. Mr. Audy was chief of an Aerospatiale trouble-shooting team for the Concorde project. ``That's the kind of thing that can't be judged in terms of francs and dollars,'' he says.
With the production lines closed and the engineering teams long dispersed, there will be no new Concordes beyond the 16 originally built. They are projected to see another 10 years of service.
But there is discreet talk of some kind of successor. No projects have been launched, but Audy says that a profitable supersonic plane is within reach.
A spokesman for Aerospatiale said Tuesday the firm is considering developing a larger, second-generation model. The new plane would be designed to carry between 200 and 300 passengers and have a range of 5,000 miles, compared with Concorde's 100-passenger capacity and range of 4,100 miles.
Its cruising speed would be Mach 2.5, or close to 1,700 miles an hour, compared with Concorde's Mach 2 speed, and it would be designed specifically with the growing Pacific market in mind.