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Branson steps up effort to save Concorde

Published May 6, 2003

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London - Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin Atlantic, will step up his efforts this week to save Concorde by urging Patricia Hewitt, the UK trade and industry secretary, to play a role in the bid to prevent the supersonic jet from being grounded by British Airways (BA) in October.

Branson and his Concorde team, made up of former Concorde pilots, engineers and commercial staff, will also meet Airbus, the aircraft's manufacturer, to try to persuade it to provide continued maintenance and technical support.

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Branson is expected to speak to Hewitt early this week to outline his business case and to obtain clarification about ownership and what rights, if any, the government has to instruct BA to hand over its fleet to another operator.

Branson said: "The more we dig, the more we feel Concorde should not be grounded. It is purely a move by BA to get rid of a big chunk of overheads and persuade more people to fly with it first class.

"That is fair enough from the point of view of BA's investors, but it is not fair when BA was given Concorde to operate on behalf of the country."

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Branson's Concorde team is understood to include Jack Lowe, the aircraft's longest-serving pilot.

Other former Concorde pilots and engineers who have retired but are still eligible to fly the plane have also offered their services, as have former commercial directors.

Airbus said last week it would not be viable for another airline to take over Concorde because it could not provide pilot training or back-up.

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But Branson said under a 1962 Anglo-French treaty, Airbus had an obligation to provide maintenance and support if another British airline wanted to take over the plane.

Branson, whose Virgin Atlantic is a launch customer for the Airbus A380 super jumbo and the stretched Airbus A430-600 long-range jet, said: "I believe I will be able to cajole Airbus into providing continued support."

BA says that it is no longer commercially viable to operate Concorde and that, far from having been handed the aircraft for £1, it paid the manufacturer £155 million plus a further $16.5 million for the spares inventory and has since invested £1 billion in seven aircraft.

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Branson said he believed the £155 million purchase price was funded by a government loan, which was written off when BA was privatised, while the £1 billion investment compared with £1.75 billion in revenues, meaning BA had made a £750 million profit from Concorde over the years.

If his bid to keep Concorde in the air is successful, Virgin Atlantic will operate three aircraft and reduce the schedule in line with demand from passengers.

But it would want to have access to the full 14 aircraft operated by BA and Air France to cannibalise them for spares, as the two existing operators had done.

Referring to BA's plans to dispose of Concorde to museums around the world and auction off some of its fittings, Branson said: "Hewitt has got to stop this jumble sale; at least until there have been proper discussions. Concorde is like a great work of art and should be saved for the country. - The Independent

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