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Concorde flies into history

A fan waves as Concorde comes in to land at Heathrow this week.
A fan waves as Concorde comes in to land at Heathrow this week.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Concorde, the design icon and jet-setters' dream, makes its supersonic swan song this week after a quarter-century of flying the rich and rushed across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound.

When three of British Airways' fleet of seven Concordes touch down within minutes of each other at London's Heathrow Airport on Friday it will mark the end for one of the technological feats of the last century and a symbol of Anglo-French cooperation.

Air France, the only other carrier to operate Concorde, retired its fleet in May of this year because it was not making enough money while BA continued its service between London and New York. Both airlines say they are giving their fleets to museums.

One of the streamlined white jets -- which first took off in 1969 -- is also on a farewell tour of United Kingdom this week, visiting Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Belfast.

Hundreds of fans are also expected to flock to Heathrow on Friday to watch the world's only successful supersonic passenger airliner land, defying BA's pleas for them to stay away.

The airliner -- developed in a unique partnership between the British and French governments -- has struggled to attract passengers following the Air France Concorde crash in Paris, which killed 113 people in July 2000.

Both BA and Air France ended their services after Airbus -- the successor to the joint Anglo-French manufacturers -- said the fleet would need extensive maintenance if it was to stay in the air.

BA, which has cut more than 13,000 jobs since just before the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, had already spent $28 million on modifications after it was found that a burst tire had ruptured the fuel tank on the Air France Concorde.

Concorde was out of service for more than a year after the Paris crash but only resumed with half the previous level of service. Passenger numbers also fell sharply on the three-hour trans-Atlantic routes.

A return flight from London to New York cost as much as $10,000 -- about twice as much as much as a first-class ticket on a regular jet. No other scheduled routes are flown.

The cost of flying Concorde was hit from its earliest days as a result of the 1970s oil price shocks. However, British tycoon Richard Branson continues to insist his Virgin Atlantic Airways can make a success of the plane, which travels at 60,000 feet (18,000 meters) at more than 1,300 mph (2,090 kph).

BA said though that it could not sell any of its fleet of Concordes to Virgin as Airbus would not allow airlines other than BA and Air France to fly the prestigious plane.

Concorde first flew in 1969. Twenty Concordes in all were built by Airbus's predecessors, Aerospatiale of France and British Aircraft Corporation, the jet entering commercial service from 1976.

Low point: The doomed Concorde takes off from Paris in 2000.
Low point: The doomed Concorde takes off from Paris in 2000.

The British and French governments sold the planes to their national carriers for a nominal 1 ($1.57) after spending more than $34 billion at 2003 prices on the development of the planes.

Despite its age, Concorde continues to break records. Just two weeks ago one landed in Boston, Massachusetts, setting a new record time between London and the U.S. of three hours, five minutes and 34 seconds, BA said.

The old record of three hours and nine minutes was set in 1974 on a flight from Paris to Boston.

Concorde was visiting Boston as part of its North American farewell tour, which includes stops in Washington and Toronto. The airliner makes the London-to-Boston trip nearly two hours quicker than a traditional jet aircraft.

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