• Short Summary

    Britain's new Labour government yesterday (Tuesday) put another question mark against the future of the Anglo-French supersonic airliner, Concorde.

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    Britain's new Labour government yesterday (Tuesday) put another question mark against the future of the Anglo-French supersonic airliner, Concorde.

    In his first Budget speech, Mr. Denis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) said no more money would be spent on the project beyond the present allocations. So far, in its 12-year history, Concorde has cost the British and French government a total of over GBP 1,000 millions sterling (2,400 million U.S. dollars)
    And on Friday this week, Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, British Secretary for Trade and Industry is to fly to Paris for talks with his French counterparts for a new appraisal of the whole Concorde programme.

    The problem with this aircraft is its cost. Expenditure on Concorde in already nearly eight times the original estimate and, at a selling price of something like GBP 45 millions sterling per plane, the world's airlines have refused to buy it. Of the 110 international operators, only two -- British Airways and Air France -- will be flying Concorde when it comes into service in 1975.

    Technically, Concorde is a breathtaking piece of aeronautical engineering. Powered by four Rolls-Royce Proteus engines, it will fly at over 1,400 miles (2,240 kms) an hour -- twice the speed of sound and faster than a rifle bullet.

    It was to have been a world-beater. In 1962, when agreements were signed between Britain and France to go ahead with the programme, the world's airlines and aircraft industries wanted supersonic transport. And Britain, in particular, needed a prestige project to re-establish its supremacy in aircraft design and engineering.

    The partnership between the two makers worked well. The British Aircraft Corporation factories at Bristol and the Sub-Aviation plant at Toulouse shared the work of building the airframe. Britain developed the engines.

    In each country a workforce of some 25,000 people were engaged on the project and by 1969 -- seven years after work started -- they saw their labours justified when the first Concorde took to the air.

    At that time, more than twenty airlines had placed options to buy the machine. But, as costs escalated, cancellations began. By 1973, when the American airlines, Pan-Am and TWA cancelled their orders, Concorde's only firm customers were the British and French airlines, with Iran and the People's Republic of China as possible buyers in the future.

    Today, sixteen Concordes are being built and it looks as if all will have to go to British Airways and Air France, even though they will be loss-makers for the airlines.

    But modifications to the aircraft to make them even more powerful and to take more passengers -- improvements which the makers claim are essential to make the aircraft viable -- are now unlikely to be approved and the prospect facing governments, manufacturers and workers in both countries is that the entire project will be slowly wound down.

    Politically, this is problematic. In 1964, when a Labour government previously came to power in Britain, suggestions were made to the French government that Concorde might be scrapped. The French, however, were determined to go ahead, demanding a huge cancellation fee if Britain pulled out.

    But now, even the French have set a limit to Concorde's soaring cost, and, with a slow-down in production, layoffs in both Bristol and Toulouse seem inevitable.

    For Mr. Wedgwood Benn, this is an added dilemma. He is Member of Parliament for a Bristol constituency, committed to look out for the welfare of his constituents, a large proportion of whom are dependent on Concorde.

    But in the end, economics will decide. Although a magnificent aircraft, Concorde has run away with money almost as fast as it flies. And in the present climate of world depression, the arithmetic is important. At the moment, outgoings on Concorde total GBP 1,000 million sterling -- and income is nil.

    The makers are still optimistic that the age of supersonic travel will yet dawn. With the Americans out of the race and the Russians deep in technical trouble with their Concordski version, they claim Concorde will weather the storm and emerge triumphant.

    But before that can happen, Concorde will have to fly through a deadly barrage of unhealthy balance sheets which threaten to bring it down to earth -- permanently.

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