View from City Road: Supersonic struggle ahead to woo Treasury

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The Independent Online
British Aerospace is asking the Government to put money into the next generation supersonic airliner. If it does not, it says, the UK could play no part in building the replacement for Concorde.

'We would rather stand on top of Nelson's Column tearing up fivers,' ministers might reasonably reply on hearing of the likely pounds 5bn overall bill for developing the new 250-seat airliner.

Concorde is beautiful and does now make an operating profit. But the effective write-off of the aircraft's huge development and construction costs still stands as a horrible warning to governments tempted to back high-tech projects.

During the Sixties and Seventies the British and French governments paid pounds 2bn for 16 planes. Only British Airways and Air France could be persuaded (or ordered) to buy them, compared with the hundreds of sales envisaged.

There are other reasons - the budget deficit and the hardness of the Treasury's nose - that suggest that BAe may well be whistling in the wind.

Despite all this, the Government should seriously consider shaking its piggy bank, and pouring a few million into the scheme.

First, it is a mistake to make too many comparisons with Concorde. This aircraft will carry many more passengers, will be much more economical, and will have a longer range. Airlines know that the longer the journey, the more sense a supersonic plane makes.

Second, this is in no sense a symbol of national machismo. The aircraft will be jointly built by the Europeans, Americans, Japanese and anyone else who wants to join in. It will be one of the first truly international projects, but will also be one that helps the participants hone the high-tech skills they need to survive.

Third, if government help is such a bad thing, why have the supposedly non-interventionist Americans been pouring money into their supersonic project?

Britain at least has experience in building and operating supersonic jetliners, which is more than the Americans do.

Every demand for government money is of course special pleading, and this one may sound crazier than many. It would catch the public's imagination and would be a potentially cost-effective way of keeping at least a few skills in these islands. But BAe should not hold its breath.

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