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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Concorde Can't Outrace Its Cost

PARIS -- Two decades after it first shrieked through the sound barrier, the sleek Concorde marked its 20th birthday Sunday as a technical success but a commercial failure.

Traveling at twice the speed of sound, 53,943 passengers flew the supersonic, needle-nosed luxury jet's Paris-to-New York leg in 1995 alone.

But the Concorde is moving at a snail's pace in recouping the $7 billion it took to put it in the air on Jan. 21, 1976, when it made its first commercial run from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, via Dakar, Senegal.

"Technically, we could fly until 2015. But the more time that passes, the more expensive it gets to run," said Franck Debouck, who is in charge of Concorde operations at Air France.

The state-run airline won't say just how deeply the Concorde is mired in debt. But it says it's content for now to absorb the red ink, and the French still puffed with pride Sunday as a Concorde roared out of Paris toward New York on the ceremonial birthday flight.

"I spent the most beautiful years of my life thanks to this plane," recalled Edouard Chemel, a seven-year veteran Concorde pilot for Air France.

"Its beauty is immortal. At all the airports on the planet, the Concorde has always been an attraction."

Operated by Air France and British Airways, the Concorde travels at more than 2,160 kilometers per hour (1,350 miles per hour) -- a speed known as Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound. It can carry as many as 128 passengers across the Atlantic in just three hours.

It has been the pride of France all the more because, even though it was developed in the 1960s, it endures in the 1990s as a sleek symbol of technological know-how.

Only 16 of the jetliners were made, the last in May 1980. Two planes already have been retired, but the rest are designed to fly until 2015. They have flown nearly 115 million kilometers without an accident.

"The first test flight of the Concorde took place in 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. What a symbol," said Michel Polacco, author of a book on the aircraft.

The Concorde has a colorful history. It has carried luminaries ranging from pop star Michael Jackson to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The late French President Fran?ois Mitterrand favored it for his official travels.

Last August, it shattered the record for around-the-world travel with a six-stage flight of 31 hours, 27 minutes.

The Concorde raised eyebrows on New Year's Eve 1994 when it carried revelers who paid $23,000 apiece for a 32-hour trip to nowhere. Travelers got to ring in the New Year twice because the jet twice crossed the international date line.

It was in the headlines earlier that year when an impatient Saudi prince, unwilling to wait two hours for the next conventional jet, paid $236,000 to charter one to the United States.

But financially, the Concorde has had a bumpy ride.

Largely because of its huge overhead and fuel costs, it isn't cheap for travelers. A round-trip ticket from New York to Paris now runs about $6,400.

The Concorde guzzles 22 tons of fuel an hour, twice the consumption of a Boeing 747 carrying four times as many passengers. That has put it out of reach of business travellers increasingly mindful of the bottom line.