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Jet set to lose queen and a slice of romance

London/Paris, April 10 (Reuters): Concorde, the world’s only supersonic passenger jet and a glamourous symbol of modern flight, will be definitively grounded by Air France and British Airways later this year due to flagging demand and rising costs.

The decision to retire the slender, needle-nosed jets after over a quarter century of flight marks the end of an era in civil aviation, when stretching the limits of engineering and design know-how was a goal in itself.

The product of a supersonic adventure launched by French President Charles de Gaulle and British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan in 1962, the Concorde evolved into a prestigious tool of the rich and famous, who paid lofty sums to hurtle across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound.

“Concorde changed the way people travelled,” British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington said. “With its going, we must lose some of the romance from aviation.”

Air France, Europe’s second-largest airline, said it was halting Concorde flights from May 31, while British Airways, Europe’s biggest airline, said it would stop commercial flights in the days leading up to the end of October.

Entrepreneur Richard Branson’s rival airline Virgin Atlantic Airways jumped quickly to exploit the decision, saying it may try to buy BA’s Concordes for one pound, the same price the national carrier had originally paid for the sleek jets. British Airways has said it would rather retire its Concordes and donate them to museums.

The costs associated with the fuel-guzzling jet had become too onerous for the only two airlines that fly the 100-seat plane. Both carriers said falling revenue and rising maintenance outlays were behind their decision.

The plane’s demise comes nearly three years after the crash of an Air France Concorde near Paris, which killed 113 people and forced both airlines to ground the planes for over a year.

Although the Concorde has always been linked in the public eye to champagne-quaffing, lobster-dining celebrities with money to spare, the reality is much different. Eddington said more than two-thirds of Concorde’s passengers were business travellers.

When Concorde flies off into the sunset for the last time, it will be the end of a glamourous era for the celebrity travellers who crowned it queen of the jet set 30 years ago.

Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who regularly travelled on Concorde, said: “It is a beautifully designed piece of engineering and, for me, travelling by Concorde has been a joy for many years. I will definitely miss it.”

British singer Sir Cliff Richard was another Concorde fan. “He never lost the thrill of it,” said his spokesman.

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