IN 12 YEARS, the French-British consortium that built the supersonic Concorde produced a grand total of 16 airplanes, of which only 11 have been sold. The plan for the last five is to give them away -- to British Airways and Air France, the plane's only two paying customers. That $400 million gift (each plane costs nearly $80 million) may not be terribly welcome, since both companies are losing a lot of money operating the Concordes: last year British Airways reported a $30 million operating loss for the planes, and Air France a $10 million loss. Only a mother could have called this result -- in the words of president of Air France -- a "commercial success."
Though a ticket costs up to three times as much as a ticket for a regular coach seat, it has been reported that each Concorde passenger on the Paris-Washington route costs the French taxpayer $1,100 in subsidies paid to Air France. There have even been rumors -- hotly denied -- that Concorde service may soon be halted because of rising fuel costs. Instead of establishing European leadership in the advanced aircraft field, Concorde has been instrumental in establishing U.S. dominance more firmly than ever before.
All in all then, you might say the Concorde has not been a howling success. But SST admirers in this country are not deterred -- in fact, just the opposite. The plane's supporters in Congress are now pushing a proposal to begin R&D on a second-generation, advanced SST. They want NASA's program increased seven to 20 times -- from an annual appropriation of $10 million to $560 million -- $1.9 billion over the next eight years.
The lobbying effort has derived considerable support from a recent study by Congress' Office of Technology Assessment, which concluded that "it appears appropriate to . . . preserve the supersonic option "by carrying out just such an R&D program. A closer look at the study, however, shows that all the facts OTA assembled point toward precisely the opposite conclusion.
Take just one example: energy costs. What really doomed the Concorde was the skyrocketing price of fuel. Because a supersonic plane uses fuel much less efficiently than a subsonic one, it is affected relatively more by rising energy costs. The OTA report estimates that an advanced SST would use anywhere from three to six times as much fuel per seat-mile as its subsonic competitor. No wonder the airlines -- already scrambling to cut back their fuel use -- have shown little enthusiasm for Concorde or the proposed new improved model.
Last time around, one of the strongest arguements in favor of the SST was that, if the United States didn't have one, it would relinquish its leadership to the Europeans and Russians. Though things turned out quite differently, the same argument is being used again.This time, though, the Europeans may be sadder and wiser: the OTA reports that foreign airlines also view an advanced SST as "too risky" and concludes that "the threat of foreign competition is not close at hand. "Last time it took years of debate to make the right decision on the SST. This time -- with budget stringencies and energy concerns to help the effort along -- with any luck it should take just a few months.