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BA Concorde Mishap Frightens Passengers

September 18, 2003

LONDON (AP) _ They took off from New York on the world’s fastest passenger jet and pulled into London’s Heathrow Airport nearly half a day later _ on a bus.

Things started to go really wrong on the $6,600-a-seat Concorde with a frightening backfire over the Atlantic Ocean. Before it was over, the plane had dropped from supersonic to subsonic speed, was running out of fuel and made an unscheduled landing in Wales.

Even passengers who know the Concorde is about to be retired forever were shocked by the service.

Like many people aboard Wednesday’s British Airways Concorde flight, John Crelly and his companion, Mhairi Watson, were looking forward to some serious luxury on the world’s only remaining supersonic civilian aircraft.

``The whole point of the trip was to have a fantastic holiday followed by the experience of flying on Concorde,″ Crelly, a 39-year-old London businessman, said Thursday.

But things got off to a bumpy start in New York. The departure from Kennedy Airport was delayed for an hour by a faulty light.

Then, three-quarters of the way into the trans-Atlantic flight, the Concorde experienced an ``engine surge,″ meaning the flow of air through one of its engines was disrupted, causing it to backfire.

``There was a bang like we’d hit a brick wall, and then the pilot came on saying something like we’d lost an engine,″ said Patricia Ayearst, a retired commercial artist from New York, speaking to journalists Thursday.

Ayearst said the flight was her second on Concorde, which is to be retired permanently in October.

``I traveled with them 20 years ago and everything went off perfectly. I thought that I’d take this flight because it was my last chance before they went out of service,″ she said.

The plane, a favored method of trans-Atlantic travel for pop stars and business tycoons, was traveling at a supersonic speed of 1,300 mph over the Atlantic Ocean when the engine problem occurred. The pilot immediately slowed the plane to subsonic speed.

``Glass and plates were flying and people were screaming. It was very scary,″ said Danny Ferris, a passenger from San Francisco who was traveling on Concorde for the first time.

``We suddenly just dropped. The air crew quickly packed everything up and told us the captain was very busy but would speak to us shortly. Finally he came on the line to tell us what had happened,″ Crelly said.

The Concorde was forced to fly at subsonic speeds for the rest of the flight, but because that uses more fuel than supersonic speed, the plane had to land at Cardiff International airport in Wales.

Passengers _ who had each paid at least $6,585 for the trip _ were asked to board a bus for the 110-mile drive to Heathrow Airport.

Concorde, which British Airways and Air France began flying commercially in 1976, can normally travel the 3,000 miles between London and New York in just three hours, 20 minutes, about half the time of a conventional airliner.

Altogether, Wednesday’s journey took nearly 10 hours.

British Airways said the landing had not been an emergency, the safety of the 99 passengers and six crew members was never compromised and no one was injured. There also has been no change to other Concorde flights, the airline said.

Steve Double, a British Airways spokesman, said the passengers would receive frequent flyer miles as compensation, but no refund. The airline’s remaining Concorde flights are sold out, he said, so passengers will have to use their miles on subsonic flights.

The Concorde’s problems mushroomed three years ago.

In July 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed outside Paris, killing all 109 people on board and four people on the ground.

Air France and British Airways, which created the airplane together, immediately grounded their fleets of Concordes but resumed service to New York in November 2001, after spending over $27.2 million on safety improvements.

In April, Air France and British Airways announced their Concorde fleets would be permanently grounded.

Air France ran its last flight in May, and British Airways plans to retire its Concordes at the end of October, prompting some passengers to buy tickets before the jet fades into history.

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