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In an age of cut-rate air travel, some opt to pay $20 a minute

There are reasons, you know, to spend $3,900 flying from Washington to London.

For cardiologist John Simpson, the supersonic Concorde was the only way to make a really nice connection in London for Toulouse, France. For the Schulte-Frohlinde couple from Germany, the three-hour trip was an alluring way to go home after an exhausting day buying a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

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For Peter and Jennifer Pittman, a middle-aged Australian couple with a penchant and a pocketbook for the exotic, it was a chance to do something a little different.

"We could have taken first class to London and sat seven hours drinking champagne. But why do that again?" said Mr. Pittman, a Sydney business executive who was preparing to board the Concorde at Washington Dulles International Airport on Friday.

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The Concorde is, after all, the ultimate time machine, a monument to high technology and high aspirations built by the British and French in defiance of economic reality and social needs. Today, in an era of discount fares and peanuts for dinner, passengers are still paying nearly $20 a minute to zip across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound.

Two decades after the "sports car in the air" first captured the public's imagination, people still come to watch it take off at Dulles. Last week, hundreds of people lined up in Philadelphia just to peek inside its cramped, tunnel-like cabin.

At a time the airline industry has lost billions of dollars and grounded hundreds of planes, the Concorde has continued to fly, sometimes with only a handful of passengers. It has endured as a symbol of a growing global economy -- and a reminder that the rich will pay nearly any price for luxury and convenience.

"We're taking it because it's fast," said Lynn Simpson, a Californian who was traveling with her husband to attend a medical meeting in Toulouse.

The 3,660-mile journey from Washington to London takes less than 3 1/2 hours. Traveling westward, the five-hour time difference means the Concorde arrives before it leaves.

Aviation toy of the royal

The $7,800 round trip is a little pricy for all but the super-affluent. And most of them fly, of course, on someone else's money. The Concorde has long been the aviation toy of the royal, the $H famous, corporate executives and diplomats.

Ivan Boesky, the fallen Wall Street financier, frequently flew the Concorde to London, sometimes buying the seat beside him just for privacy. Queen Elizabeth II hopped on to return quickly to Buckingham Palace from the Caribbean.

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To avoid jet lag, U.S. golfers take the Concorde to England. A dozen members of the Thai royal family have flown from New York to London en masse.

"Time and health is money for many people," says Sandy Gardiner, vice president at British Airways, which flies six of the world's 12 Concordes. Air France operates the other six.

But during the recession and the Persian Gulf war, even the Concorde took an economic hit. Under intense public scrutiny, World Bank executives started flying less-expensive 747s. Executives who traveled on the Concorde stepped down to first class.

The Concorde once even flew with five passengers in the 100-seat cabin. In the early '90s, British Airways cut in half its Concorde service, to just one daily flight between New York and London and temporarily suspended its three weekly trips from Dulles. It permanently scrapped its Miami service.

Still, with only Air France operating the world's other supersonic commercial planes, the British felt little competitive pressure to lower prices.

"We don't do discount, we don't do cheap fares," Capt. David Rowland, head of Concorde operations, says emphatically.

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"This is a unique aircraft. There are planes that can go [either] xTC higher, faster, further and carry more people," he said. "But nothing [commercially] in the world can do what a Concorde can do."

A downturned beak

The sleek aircraft resembles a bird with a downturned beak. It is relatively small for a jet: 204 feet long. Its delta-like wings span only 84 feet. Aircraft aficionados call it the world's most beautiful, high-flying silhouette.

It cruises at 50,000 to 60,000 feet, at least 10,000 feet higher than most commercial jets, avoiding both weather and traffic control woes. On a clear day, you can see the curvature of the earth.

At 1,350 miles an hour, or twice the speed of sound, the friction created by blasting through the sound barrier is so intense that its 5-by-7-inch windows heat up. The Concorde flies at that speed only over deserts or oceans to minimize the impact of sonic boom on the world below.

Inside, the service is elegant. Passengers sip Dom Perignon champagne, 20-year-old Johnny Walker Blue scotch. They have their choice of lobster, lamb chops, wild rice and lemon mousse.

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But on a flight from Dulles on Thursday, destined for Philadelphia (not a typical stopping point), about 70 less-well-heeled passengers got a more limited taste of Concorde's flair.

With a couple of reporters invited on board as part of a promotional flight, the Concorde flew at 14,000 feet, reaching Philadelphia in just 28 minutes -- only leaving time for champagne.

The Concorde's four Rolls Royce engines revved to a deafening roar as it taxied slowly to the runway. Then, with the same speed and thrust of a trans-Atlantic departure, it rocketed forward, reaching takeoff speed of 300 mph in 29 seconds. The surge thrusts passengers against their seats.

'Sporting, isn't it'

"Sporting, isn't it," says Captain Rowland from the cockpit, one of three pilots. They represent about $450,000 a year worth of salaries.

Shortly after liftoff, the pilot turned off the afterburners of two engines as passengers felt a momentary sensation of stalling out.

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In the front of the cabin, a green neon sign blinked changes in altitude, temperature and ground speed. The short flight to Philadelphia climbed to its cruising altitude and reached 0.65 Mach, two-thirds the speed of sound.

Through thunderstorms, the Concorde lurches and rolls like a Boeing 727. (Indeed, a return flight later that evening to Dulles aboard an 18-seat USAir Express plane was far smoother). Despite strong crosswinds and a driving rain, it hovers like a bird of prey on Philadelphia International Airport, gliding gracefully onto the runway.

"How was it for you?" quips Captain Rowland from the cockpit.

A larger question, perhaps, might be how has it been for British Airways?

First flight in 1969

Developed jointly in the '60s by the British and the French, the British Concorde 002 made its first flight on April 9, 1969, three months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

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It broke the sound barrier six months later. Farmers worried that the droopy-nosed aircraft would kill everything from cows to vegetation. Schoolchildren waited eagerly to hear the boom.

The British and French governments pumped millions of dollars into the research and development of the aircraft. In effect, the taxpayers of Great Britain and France subsidized the convenience of a subset of the jet set.

(American taxpayers were spared the same fate after Congress in the mid-'70s rejected a proposal to finance research and development on an American version, the Supersonic Transport, known as the SST.)

Hundreds of Concordes were expected to be manufactured. But oil prices skyrocketed in 1973, and the Concorde was the wrong plane at the wrong time. In 1980, assembly lines were disbanded after the 20th Concorde was completed.

Today, with British Airways and Air France each operating six, the others are scattered in museums or used as backups.

In addition to its regular trans-Atlantic flights, the Concorde operates charters, flying a $1,200 day trip from London to see the Pyramids in Egypt, for instance, and a weekly winter service to Barbados from London. It has operated three, round-the-world charters, costing $49,000 each.

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Revenue not disclosed

British Airways says the Concorde operation has been profitable since 1986, a year before the company shifted from government ownership to the public. But the company won't disclose revenue or passenger figures. The twice-daily flight from New York to London is usually two-thirds full, the airline says, but a typical flight from Dulles operates only a third to half full.

Many of the 66 passengers aboard last Friday's Flight 188 at Dulles were British Airways employees. In addition, a family of four had been upgraded onto the Concorde to make room on an overbooked British Airways flight that would leave Dulles later that day.

"It's not important how many people we carry, but how much revenue we make," said Captain Rowland. "That's why we charge $7,500.

"We don't talk about cost either, other than to say, it's a very expensive aircraft to operate."

Both British and French manufacturers have proposed building a second generation of Concordes which could carry as many as 280 passengers and travel 1,550 miles an hour. Its range would extend to more than 5,000 miles from its current 4,150 miles. The price tag would likely exceed a half-billion dollars each.

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The Asian market could be the most attractive. A flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong currently takes about 14 hours. Aboard a new Concorde, stopping to refuel in Hawaii, it could take a little more than half the time.

In the meantime, the Concorde that now flies is expected to last into the next century. British Airways just spent more than $1 million refurbishing each of its planes.

With passengers like the Pittmans, there will always be someone to pay for panache.

"There's not much luxury left in the air travel any more," said Jennifer Pittman. "Please don't take the Concorde away."



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