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Associated Press

LONDON — British Airways checked in its last fare-paying Concorde passengers Thursday, a day before scheduled supersonic service ends for good.

Both Thursday's London-New York flight and Friday's final trans-Atlantic return are expected to be full, but Friday's passengers will all be invited guests of the airline, including actress Joan Collins and Concorde frequent flyer Sir David Frost.

Thousands of planespotters are expected to gather near Heathrow Airport on Friday to watch the near-simultaneous landing of the New York flight and two other Concordes — one carrying competition winners from Edinburgh, the other taking guests on a circular flight from Heathrow over the Bay of Biscay.

With that, the era of supersonic commercial flight will be over, at least for now.

British Airways chairman Lord Marshall said Concorde's final day would bring mixed emotions.

"Everyone has enormous pride in all that she has achieved, but there is inevitable sadness that we have to move on and say farewell," he said.

"The decision to retire Concorde was a tough one, but it is the right thing to do at the right time," he added.

British Airways' announcement last April that it was retiring its seven Concordes spurred an outpouring of affection for the sleek needle-nosed jet.

But airport authorities asked people not to go to Heathrow Friday for the finale, fearing traffic gridlock in the area west of London.

Hundreds of police will be on duty around the airport's perimeter and parking will be strictly barred, as 1,000 invited guests watch the landing from a grandstand erected near the runway.

The Anglo-French Concorde, which began commercial service in January 1976, was a technological marvel and the ultimate symbol of jet-set glamour. It flew up to 11 miles above the Earth, at up to 1,350 mph, crossing the Atlantic in about 3 1/2 hours. With the five-hour time difference, passengers arrived in New York earlier than they had left London.

But it was ultimately a financial dud. The British and French governments hoped to sell hundreds of Concordes around the world, but in the end only 16 were built. All went to BA and Air France, which grounded its fleet for good in May.

Concorde never made back the millions invested in it, even with fares of more than $9,000 for a trans-Atlantic round trip. The July 25, 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde near Paris, which killed 113 people, grounded the planes for more than a year. Concorde returned to service just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which spawned an aviation slump.

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Maintenance costs also were growing for the aging jets. Last April, both airlines announced they would be retiring Concorde.

British Airways said it would make an announcement next week about the fate of its seven Concordes. Most are expected to go to museums.

Virgin Atlantic Airways chief Richard Branson, whose attempt to buy the remaining Concordes was rebuffed by BA, said it was a shame the plane would not be allowed to continue flying.

"Concorde is capable of flying for 20 to 30 years and it should continue to fly," he said.

"We should all make an enormous effort to make sure that Concorde is kept flying in air displays and jubilee events so that future generations can actually see Concorde fly and not in a museum."

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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