The end of an era?

Since its commercial debut 27 years ago, the Concorde has traversed the Atlantic bearing both affluent passengers and the symbolic weight of supersonic conquest. This spring, citing disappointing ticket sales and high maintenance costs, British Airways and Air France announced that Concorde service would end in October. Enter Richard Branson, who says Virgin Atlantic will attempt to acquire BA's Concorde fleet. (Virgin has deemed Air France's Concorde fleet too outdated to warrant buying.) Yet British Airways maintains that the jets are not for sale. "The Concorde will retire gracefully at the end of October," says BA spokesman Richard Goodfellow.

The British government collaborated with the French in the sixties to develop the planes, then sold its fleet to British Airways in the seventies. Branson insists that the terms under which BA received the planes must be investigated. "The aircraft were built by the taxpayers," says Will Whitehorn, a director of the Virgin Group. "In reality, [British Airways] probably doesn't own the aircraft." According to Whitehorn, British Airways is morally —perhaps legally—bound to turn over the planes if Virgin is willing to fly them. Furthermore, he says, with two classes of service, new flight routes, and the technical know-how of former Concorde engineers now on Virgin's payroll, the company could turn a profit on the money-burning craft—an assertion airline analysts dispute. "The current maintenance costs will increase significantly, especially if France's fleet is retired," explains Nick van den Brul, an aviation analyst at BNP Paribas in London.

The Concorde's future ultimately rests on whether the British government will intervene on British Airways' behalf. For the moment, the Department for Transport is staying on the sidelines. Says spokesman David Stewart: "This really is a matter between the two airlines."