Concorde Retirement 2003

The official line was that both the French and the UK governments agreed to end Concorde’s flights, mainly because the costs of maintenance were going to be too great. The Treaty would not appear to prevent one side from going it alone but they would then have to shoulder all the costs. The press notices at the time show the close involvement of Airbus in the decision. Safety rules require every plane to have an air worthiness certificate to keep flying and Concorde’s was held by Airbus. It monitored any safety modifications to the planes and provided technical advice to BA engineers. Airbus thought Concorde should be grounded for good at the end of October 2003 and was unwilling to pass on the air worthiness certificate to another company.

Interestingly the announcement by BA on 10 April 2003 of the ending of Concorde flights did not refer to France:

British Airways announced today the retirement of its Concorde fleet of seven aircraft with effect from the end of October 2003.

The airline said that its decision had been made for commercial reasons with passenger revenue falling steadily against a backdrop of rising maintenance costs for the aircraft. Detailed discussions over an extended period with Airbus, the aircraft’s manufacturer, confirmed the need for an enhanced maintenance programme in the coming years, the carrier added. British Airways has decided that such an investment cannot be justified in the face of falling revenue caused by a global downturn in demand for all forms of premium travel in the airline industry (…)

Noel Forgeard, president and chief executive officer of Airbus, said: “Airbus’ predecessors Aerospatiale and British Aircraft Corporation created Concorde some 40 years ago and we are proud of this remarkable achievement. But its maintenancecompletely and respect the decision of British Airways, especially in the present economic climate. It goes without saying that until the completion of the very last flight, we will continue to support the airline so that the highest standards of maintenance and safety are entirely fulfilled” … 26

Air France’s press notice on 10 April was very similar:

Air France n’envisage pas de prolonger l’exploitation de sa flotte Concorde au delà du 31 Octobre 2003, date de la fin du programme d’été de la Compagnie.

Cette décision est motivée par la détérioration des résultats économiques de la ligne transatlantique exploitée en Concorde, observée au cours de ces derniers mois et qui s’est accélérée depuis le début de l’année. Cette baisse de la demande est intervenue alors que la Compagnie avait à supporter des coûts de maintenance en très forte augmentation depuis la remise en ligne du supersonique, le 7 novembre 2001.

La décision de la Compagnie s’appuie donc sur des raisons structurelles de divergence croissante entre coûts et recettes. Elle a été prise en étroite relation avec le constructeur, Airbus : “Les prédécesseurs d’Airbus, Aérospatiale et British Aircraft Corporation ont créé Concorde il y a quelque 40 années de cela, et nous sommes fiers de cette remarquable réussite. Mais les coûts de maintenance de l’appareil augmentent rapidement au fil des années”, a déclaré Noël Forgeard, Président d’Airbus. “C’est pourquoi”, en tant que constructeur, “nous comprenons et respectons parfaitement la décision d’Air France et de British Airways, surtout dans le contexte économique actuel. Il va sans dire que, jusqu’au tout dernier vol de Concorde, nous continuerons à soutenir les compagnies de manière à remplir pleinement les plus stricts critères de maintenance et de sécurité de l’appareil”.

“C’est à regret qu’Air France a pris la décision d’arrêter l’exploitation de Concorde. Mais ce choix s’imposait”, a déclaré Jean-Cyril Spinetta, président-directeur général d’Air France. “La dégradation de la situation économique, tout au long de ces derniers mois, s’est traduite par une baisse du trafic affaires qui a tout particulièrement pesé sur les résultats de Concorde. Les coûts de maintenance de l’appareil ayant été sensiblement accrus depuis sa remise en ligne, son exploitation est devenue lourdement et structurellement déficitaire. Dans ces conditions, il devenait déraisonnable de la poursuivre longtemps encore”.27

A report in The Times, however, gave the BA side of the story:

British Airways was forced into retiring Concorde because Air France and Airbus, the French-based manufacturer, refused to continue supporting it, the airline’s chairman said. Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge said that BA would have been keen to continue operating the plane beyond the end of October if the French had been prepared to share the burden of extra maintenance costs.

BA originally said the decision to retire Concorde had been taken jointly, but Lord Marshall told The Times: “Concorde can’t keep flying unless the manufacturer is willing to go on producing the parts. Airbus said they were not willing to support Concorde beyond the end of October. We might well have considered continuing if they hadn’t. It would have made it much more difficult for Airbus if Air France and BA had presented a united front in supporting the continuation of scheduled services.”

Lord Marshall said that Airbus had been determined to redeploy the staff who supported Concorde to more profitable production lines. Airbus told BA that it would have to spend Pounds 40 million on maintenance over the next two to five years to keep Concorde flying.

Air France said that the decision had been taken “in close conjunction with Airbus”. BA was selling just under half its seats before the retirement was announced. Air France was filling barely a fifth of the seats on its five Concordes, and had suffered the stigma of having lost 113 passengers and crew in the crash in Paris in July 2000 … 28

The Labour Government at the time did not make any direct comments about the decision to withdraw Concorde but in the House when questioned about supersonic aviation, the Minister indicated that it was a matter for the airlines:

Airlines will determine what level of demand there may be for supersonic travel. British Airways has taken the view that their existing fleet of Concorde need to be retired after almost 30 years of service. For the longer term, if sufficient demand is forecast for supersonic travel, I am sure airlines will work closely with aircraft manufacturers to understand the particular environmental, technical and cost challenges of developing and operating a new generation of supersonic passenger aircraft. 29

The Government later made it clear that the decision on the final destination of the Concorde aircraft was purely a matter for BA:

… Public ownership ceased in 1984 when British Airways became the owner and operator of the UK Concorde fleet. The Government is therefore not in a position to make a decision on the final destinations for each of the Concorde aircraft. That remains a decision for British Airways, the legal owner of the UK Concorde fleet. 30

Only 14 Concordes entered service (seven each belonging to BA and Air France), there were also six development aircraft.

From The Times

May 1, 2003

BA chief blames French for killing off Concorde

By Ben Webster, Transport Correspondent

BRITISH AIRWAYS was forced into retiring Concorde because Air France and Airbus, the French-based manufacturer, refused to continue supporting it, the airline’s chairman said.

Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge said that BA would have been keen to continue operating the plane beyond the end of October if the French had been prepared to share the burden of extra maintenance costs.

BA originally said the decision to retire Concorde had been taken jointly, but Lord Marshall told The Times: “Concorde can’t keep flying unless the manufacturer is willing to go on producing the parts.

“Airbus said they were not willing to support Concorde beyond the end of October. We might well have considered continuing if they hadn’t.

“It would have made it much more difficult for Airbus if Air France and BA had presented a united front in supporting the continuation of scheduled services.”

Lord Marshall said that Airbus had been determined to redeploy the staff who supported Concorde to more profitable production lines. Airbus told BA that it would have to spend £40 million on maintenance over the next two to five years to keep Concorde flying.

Air France said that the decision had been taken “in close conjunction with Airbus”.

BA was selling just under half its seats before the retirement was announced. Air France was filling barely a fifth of the seats on its five Concordes, and had suffered the stigma of having lost 113 passengers and crew in the crash in Paris in July 2000.

Jock Lowe, BA’s former chief pilot and commercial manager of Concorde in the late 1990s, said that Air France had always been less interested in maintaining Concorde flights. “They never made as much money as BA on Concorde. They failed to upgrade the product in the way BA has over the years.”

BA spent £14 million on refitting the interiors of their aircraft while they were grounded after the Air France crash.

Mr Lowe said that BA should have invoked the terms of the 1962 treaty on Concorde signed by Britain and France, which obliged them to continue supporting the aircraft even if one wanted to withdraw. BA could make a profit from Concorde for several more years if it promoted it properly. “The massive demand for tickets since the retirement was announced proves how popular Concorde continues to be.”

BA sold all 1,000 discount tickets on the day they went on sale and is now preparing another promotion for the plane’s final six months. Air France’s Concorde service is now at least 70 per cent full.

Mr Lowe said that he supported Virgin Atlantic’s attempt to take over BA Concorde services. “They would need a huge amount of expertise but there is a pool of recently retired engineers who would be very willing to help. Virgin has the marketing flair needed to make it work.”

Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin chairman, said: “Concorde was built with taxpayers’ money and handed over to BA and Air France for virtually nothing. BA is only acting as custodian of those planes for the British people.”

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