The world's most futuristic commercial airplane may no longer have a future.
Britain stripped the supersonic Concorde of its airworthiness certificate yesterday, grounding the sleek white birds indefinitely, and French officials said they would do the same in the wake of last month's crash outside Paris that killed 113 people.
Revelations that a mundane tire blowout caused the jet to burst into flames and crash have ruined the plane's image as a technological masterpiece. And making the planes safe might cost more than they are worth, many experts predict.
"The modifications that would be required to make Concorde safe are likely to be so expensive that neither British Airways nor Air France will be able to stand the cost," says David Kidney, joint chairman of Britain's parliamentary advisory council on transport safety.
French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot disagreed. "One should not and cannot talk about the death of Concorde," he told French television.
"Concorde has many possibilities ahead of it," he added.
But the investigating team's conclusion that debris from a burst tire caused the July 25 accident, puncturing one or more fuel tanks, leaking high-octane aviation fuel into the plane's afterburners and causing an intense fire that robbed two engines of thrust, was devastating.
"It is clear to us all in the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] that a tire burst alone should never cause the loss of a public transport aircraft," said Sir Michael Field, chairman of the CAA, as he announced the suspension of Concorde's airworthiness certificate yesterday in London.
French officials have said they will follow the recommendation of the French Accident Investigation Office (BEA) that Concorde's certificate should be revoked until "appropriate measures guaranteeing a satisfactory level of security as far as the risks linked to the destruction of the tires" can be implemented.
This is only the third time since World War II that an aircraft has had its certificate revoked, aviation analysts said. In the 1950s, the British-made Comet suffered that fate, and the DC-10 was grounded briefly in the United States in 1979.
From safest to least safe
"This is a pretty significant occurrence," says Jim Burin, technical-affairs director of the Washington-based Flight Safety Foundation.
"You can tell how critical a problem is by how long they give you to fix it," and only in the most severe cases is a whole fleet simply banned from flying," he says.
"But Concorde is a unique airplane," explains Charles Coste, an official with the French Civil Aviation Directorate.
With only 12 Concordes flying - seven of them in the British Airways fleet - normally only between London or Paris and New York, "they have a very limited number of flight hours compared to conventional planes, and you have to be especially vigilant" in the event of an accident, he says.
With last month's crash, the Concorde has gone from being statistically the safest plane in the skies - after 24 years of accident-free service - to statistically one of the least safe.
The CAA said it had asked Concorde's British and French manufacturers to propose steps that would prevent a similar accident from occurring.
"At this stage it is not possible to say how long these studies will take ... but we will conduct this work as thoroughly and quickly as possible," Sir Michael said.
"We wish Concorde to fly," he added.
An airline icon
So does British Airways, in a big way.
Unlike Air France, the only other carrier to fly the Concorde, BA has made the supersonic plane a centerpiece of its marketing and image promotion, billing itself as "the world's favorite airline."
When passengers arrive at Heathrow Airport, outside London, one of the first things they see at the entrance is a scaled-down version of the Concorde; it is an advertisement for British Airways.
Ron Eddington, BA's chief executive, said last week that Concorde was "very important to our premium customers and therefore disproportionately important to our brand."
He added that Concorde was "one of the few things in this business where one airline enjoys a unique, sustainable advantage over another."
This means that the costs of any modifications that may be needed to make Concorde airworthy again "will be only one factor" in the airlines' decision over the jetliner's future, Mr. Burin says.
"The fact that it is the only supersonic plane is also an element - both British Airways and Air France are rightfully proud of providing the only supersonic service in the world," he says.
"I'd be surprised if it turned out to be too expensive to fix," Burin adds.
Though neither the airlines nor aviation experts are yet hazarding guesses as to the cost of making Concorde safe, it could be high.
Tire blowouts are relatively common on Concorde takeoffs: The plane is rolling so fast and the wheels are turning so quickly that tire technology is stretched to its limits.
Design poses challenge
But protecting fuel tanks from potentially fatal pieces of hot rubber is difficult, given Concorde's unique design.
The plane's fuel-filled wings are directly above the wheels, which are close to the intakes of the four engines. And the engines are an integral part of the wing assembly, not easily detached.
Although the two airlines that operate the Concorde "may want to get it back in the air for reasons of prestige," says David Learmount, safety editor of the London-based Flight International magazine, if the cost of eventual modifications turns out to be too high, "We will have to say 'Goodbye, Concorde.' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society