Staying airborne

Virgin engineers say they can overcome the practical problems involved in maintaining Concorde as a going concern.

Concorde could be made a commercial success despite its age and rising maintenance costs, Virgin Atlantic’s most senior engineer insisted this week.

The company also claimed to have held positive discussions with Rolls-Royce and the Civil Aviation Authority about keeping Concorde in operation, and that ‘everyone in the industry bar BA and Airbus’ believes it can be kept flying. It said that Concorde engineers from both BA and Air France have written to Virgin offering their services to keep the aircraft flying.

Virgin recently offered British Airways £5m to buy its five remaining Concordes, including spare parts, in a bid to keep the aircraft in commercial operation. BA, which plans to retire the 30-year old aircraft later this year, has said its decision is based on Airbus’ refusal to continue supporting the aircraft for commercial flights after October. Airbus, which supplies Concorde’s spare parts and maintains its air-worthiness, has said the cost of maintaining such an ageing aircraft makes it uneconomic.

But Jeff Livings, director of engineering at Virgin, said that he had not heard of a single technical problem with Concorde that could not be overcome. ‘There are aircraft a lot older than Concorde that are kept flying, and they have far bigger spare parts problems,’ he said.

Virgin has looked at what BA charged for Concorde flights and has also received some informal feedback from ex-Concorde staff at both BA and Air France. It has been told that around 50 per cent of running costs go on maintenance but remains undeterred: ‘We have estimated how much it should be necessary to spend on maintenance and are still confident we can make Concorde a financial success,’ said Livings.

Concorde costs three times as much to operate as a Boeing 747, and burns twice as much fuel, these high cost considerations being exacerbated by falling passenger numbers since the Paris crash in July 2000. And Airbus has predicted that maintenance bills will rise by £8m per aircraft over the next two years.

But while Concorde is unique, with its own unique problems, the same is true of all aircraft, said Livings. ‘Airbus says there are fuselage cracking problems on Concorde, but I don’t know of an aircraft in commercial operation that doesn’t have fuselage cracking. Concorde has cracking, and its repair scheme is different, but every other aircraft will have fuselage cracking, and have its own unique repair scheme.’

As there are so few Concordes in existence, buying mass-produced spare parts off-the-shelf is not an option, another factor that pushes up maintenance costs.

As Air France has now ceased supersonic flights, and passed all its Concordes over to museums, there should be an abundance of spare parts about the place, he said. ‘As the aircraft will be on display rather than being flown removing some components should not be a problem. And Air France also has a number of spare parts in storage that it is likely to be willing to sell,’ he said.

Not all Concorde’s parts are 30 years old; some have been replaced during the lifetime of the aircraft, while most have been upgraded and Virgin would aim to keep a number of the repair shops going, said Livings.

Airbus has said it has a team of 80 specialist engineers working full time on Concorde, as it is still considered a fairly young aircraft in terms of flight time, and would rather put these experts to work on other aircraft. To this end, Virgin has offered to take ownership of the aircraft’s Type certificate – the equivalent of an MOT – out of Airbus’ hands and give it to a third party. ‘This third party has a lot of Concorde experience already, and has already said it would take on Concorde people who were willing to move across,’ said Livings. This third party, which Livings said did not wish to be named, is believed to be Qinetiq.

‘Qinetiq and Rolls-Royce have both been positive, and so has the CAA. We’ve had discussions with them. Everyone in the industry wants to keep Concorde flying if possible, although no-one is denying that as it gets older the challenges are going to increase,’ said Paul Moore, head of Virgin Corporate Affairs.

On a shop floor level, Livings said Virgin would also seek to employ a number of Concorde engineers from both BA and Air France. ‘We have received a lot of letters from Concorde engineers who would be willing to come to work at Virgin,’ he said.But despite Virgin’s claim that the aircraft could still be a commercial success, BA appears unwilling to budge. A spokeswoman for the airline said Concorde is not for sale.

Airbus has said that due to the manner in which Concorde has historically been operated and supported, all maintenance facilities, tooling and spares are held by the two airlines, meaning the manufacturer is not equipped to provide support to any other airline. ‘Virgin would have to come to an agreement with BA and Air France,’ said a spokeswoman for Airbus.

Branson has also proposed that a heritage trust be established to keep at least two Concordes flying in a semi-commercial service.

Virgin said they would be willing to donate £1m to the charitable venture, which could see the aircraft take part in special flights, charters and even a small number of weekly services.

But BA’s spokeswoman said the company had always maintained that it is investigating the possibility of keeping Concorde flying in flypasts and special events. ‘We are looking at our own charitable ventures; we aren’t in any great discussions with Virgin over any joint work,’ she said.

Opinion is divided in the aerospace community as to whether the aircraft can really be kept flying, or should be grounded. Glyn Davies, professor of aeronautical structures at Imperial College, who worked on the original Concorde project, said the issue of keeping the aircraft in commercial operation is an economic rather than technical one. But he claimed Branson was trying to turn the issue into an emotional debate as a PR stunt.

‘Quite simply it was losing too much money. It was two-thirds full at best, and that sort of high-paying business passenger isn’t going to come back in a hurry. Concorde was never really about economics, it was about technology and prestige. Look at the engines – military engines in a civilian aircraft.’

Technically it could fly for another 20 years, but spare parts are a problem, he said. ‘Every bit of Concorde is special. I’m sure Branson has looked into the possibility of using the French Concordes for spares.’

But cannibalising parts from grounded Concordes to keep one or two flying is not as straightforward as it sounds, according to Prof. Ian Poll, director of the Cranfield College of Aeronautics. ‘These days, cannibalisation is not as easy as it used to be, because of the need to protect the public from risks from bogus parts. It is now frowned upon.’

‘There is too much emotion and too little common sense in this debate,’ he said.

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