The Anglo-French struggle to win landing rights for Concorde in New York City has settled into a legalistic minuet where progress is measured in postponements and the absence of a decision is regarded as diplomatic triumph.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns John F. Kennedy Airport, Concorde's Promised Land, twice has postponed taking a vote on the issue - both times at the last hour.
Arguments in a lawsuit brought against the Port Authority by British Airways and Air France have been scheduled, and delayed, three times. British and French officials are meeting today to decide whether to press that suit and demand landing rights.
"It's an interesting demonstration of how you can avoid a great ruckus by taking no action," a knowledgeable U.S. official said.
Nonetheless, the Concorde flap is becoming an issue in another important area: the renegotiation of a treaty that guarantees landing rights for all U.S. airlines in Britain and does the same for Britain here.
It has been 10 months since the Concorde began flying regularly from London and Paris to Dulles International Airport at twice the speed of sound, cutting the duration of that trip from 8 hours to 4.
Despite that startling statistic and the fact that Concorde is carrying acceptable payloads, the world's airlines are not beating a pathway to its door. New York City may be going bankrupt, but 60 to 70 per cent of all transatlantic passengers still either start or end their flights there. Without New York, what airline needs Concorde?
Sixteen Concordes have been built; five of those are still unsold; the only buyers so far have been the state-owned British and French airlines; the production line is all but clinically dead. A $3 billion joint venture of the British and French, started in technology-happy 1962, is running afoul of the environmentally conscious 1970s.
British Aircraft Corp. spokesman Leo Schefer said Friday that "access to New York would unlikely to have any immediate impact on (Concorde) production . . . It would, however, have a very helpful impact on the profitability of the existing fleet, as it would enable British Airways and Air France to use the aircraft on the principal route they purchased it for."
Concorde's greatest perceptible sin is that it makes too much noise at a time when New Yorkers have had it with too much noise.
"Just when we're at a point when we're going to see a meaningful reduction in aircraft noise, they want to take this step backward," said Joseph Lewis, a Hempstead, Long Island, resident whose home is close to Kennedy Airport and who has been among the leaders of the vocal anti-Concorde forces there.
The "meaningful reduction" Lewis refers to is a new regulation that requires all U.S. jetliners to be as quiet within eight years as the quietest are today. The British and French say no known technology can make their supersonic plane quieter, and it is louder today than even the noisiest old U.S. jet.
Are the citizens of Long Island going to tell the governments of Britain and France to take their $60 million airplane elsewhere? Do they have that right?
It has been the public position of the Carter administration, and the Ford administration before it, that that is precisely what could happen. Whether the Concorde lands in New York is a question for New York, the U.S. government is saying.
That is where the treaty comes in. Britain and the United States have granted each other landing rights in a treaty called the "Bermuda agreement." The British asked last year that it be renegotiated. It expires June 22.
The stated British concern was that U.S. flag carriers have a larger share of the Alantic market than British Airways does, and the British are seeking adjustments.
Last week, for the first time, Concorde was explicitly mentioned publicly in the context of the treaty. "We have not been able to obtain our treaty rights in respect of the landing of Concorde in New York," Edmund Dell told the House of Commons. Dell, the secretary of state for trade, went on to say, "We see no justification for them keeping Concorde out of New York."
If the treaty is not renegotiated by June 22, just as the summer tourist season really begins, it is theoretically possible that air travel would cease between Britain and the United States on the flag carriers of the two old allies.
The position of the Concorde forces has been that the plane can meet the noise standards at Kennedy "as they are presently enforced," in the words of Charles Goodell, the former Republican senator from new York who is a legal adviser to the French.
The New York Port Authority has its own local noise rule for Kennedy. The rule says that an airplane may not be louder on takeoff than 112 Perceived Noise Decibels (PNdB). The Port Authority has two microphones located off runways at Kennedy to measure airplane noise.
The British and French contend that many ordinary jet airplanes violate the 112 PNdB standard every day, but that their pilots know where the microphones are and fly to "beat the meter." The British and French maintain that Concorde can beat the meter, too, although they put it more delicately.
A day before the last Port Authority meeting March 10, Goodell told the authority that Concorde technicians wanted to discuss takeoff procedures and runway options at Kennedy that would result in Concorde meeting the local noise rule.
It was two days before nationwide municipal elections in France, and French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing had been loudly insisting on Concorde landing rights.
At the same time, British Prime Minister James Callaghan was visiting President Carter. The diplomatic community was very concerned that the Port Authority would say "no" to Concorde at the worst possible time.
Goodell request for technical discussions was interpreted by the Port Authority as a motion to delay, and it did so, with haste.
Giscard, understandably enough, chose to read the delay as an optimistic sign.
Since then, Concorde technicians have met with Port Authority technicians to discuss takeoff patterns. Another technical exchange is scheduled. The next Port Authority meeting is April 14 and it is not yet clear whether Concorde will be on the agenda. "We certainly want to be," said Goodell.
British and French spokesmen were attaching some optimism last week to a press conference statement by New York Gov. Hugh Carey, who appeared to say for the first time that if Concorde could meet Kennedy's noise standards it would be let in. "Up to now, we have had the evidence nor had that assurance," Carey said. He can overrule any Port Authority decision.
A spokesman for Carey, Howard Clark, conceded that the governor's statement did represent a shift in emphasis from an abolsute negative.