TWENTY years after the first Concorde supersonic airliner soared aloft, Britain and France, its developers, have gone back to the drawing boards to design a much larger successor. Designers at British Aerospace (BAE) and Aerospatiale are working on a project for a supersonic jet that would carry nearly 300 passengers, compared with the Concorde's 100. And the plane they have in mind would have nearly double the Concorde's range of 4,000 miles.
Sir Raymond Lygo, BAE's chief executive, announced this week that the $10 billion project was under active consideration. He said that the Concorde Mark 2 would fly at the same speed as the present supersonic passenger jet - roughly twice the speed of sound. The aim would be to make the new plane much more economical in performance.
In its first decade the sleek, birdlike Concorde, with its distinctive drooping nose and triangular wings, came under heavy criticism for being too small and too expensive to operate. For a long time it ran at a heavy loss, largely because within three years of the maiden flight world petroleum prices rose sharply. In France, the Concorde received an operating subsidy from the government. British Airways Concordes ran at a loss, with the airline's other services helping to subsidize its operations.
Only 16 Concordes were produced, with seven each going to British Airways and Air France and two others retained by the makers for testing. Most of the aircraft are still operational. Air France runs a supersonic service between Paris and New York. British Airways flies London-New York, London-Washington-Miami, plus a weekly London-Barbados flight.
Both airlines also do a brisk trade in Concorde charter flights. Some years ago Air France ran Concorde flights to Caracas, Rio de Janiero,and Mexico City but had to withdraw the services because of high costs.
Air France and British Airways now make modest profits out of their Concorde operations, but fares are steep - a round-trip tricket from London to New York costs around $6,500.
Officials at Toulouse, where the Concorde was built, say the supersonic jet's successor would have to be a fully international enterprise, involving a number of European countries as well as Japan in finance and construction. Studies by Aerospatiale suggest that there will be a world market for a new Concorde of around 300-400 planes in the first decades of the 21st century - provided designers can come up with an aircraft that operates with reasonable fuel economy.
One of the striking things about the Concorde is its relatively cramped passenger configuration.
Seat space and legroom are tight - much more so than for first class subsonic travel. A new design would probably ease this problem. If a firm decision is taken to build the new plane, it will take about 10 years to move the project from the drawing board into the skies.