The Future Large Aircraft (FLA) project is, according to all the assurances, going to be revolution among co-operative European military projects in that it is going to be run on commercial lines. The aircraft is to be built by Airbus Industrie, and workshares for the participating nations are to be established on economic, rather than political, grounds. The trouble is, the FLA programme at the moment seems to be all assurances and no action - and that is not the mark of a commercially run programme.
The participants in Euroflag (the multi-national consortium which devised the FLA programme) have said that industrial responsibility for the FLA will be transferred to Airbus, but, so far, little progress has been made. Airbus Chief Jean Pierson said months ago that he was frustrated by this lack of progress, yet nothing has changed.
A view was recently expressed from within Aerospatiale that the vital question of workshare on the programme will be decided on commercial, rather than political, grounds, but that says very little. In the end, the concern is that the country which orders (or says it will order) the biggest number of FLAs will gain for its national aerospace industry the biggest share of the work.
Judging on current evidence, however, there is going to be precious little work to share out unless something is done shortly. The question remains, though: what is to be done, and who is to do it, to break the logjam?
The question of bringing the FLA project inside Airbus should be relatively uncomplicated if it is, indeed, intended that the FLA be produced on a commercial basis. All Airbus need do in the first instance is announce that it will build the aircraft subject to satisfactory finance being supplied. Those countries which want the FLA would then have a stark choice: fund it or lose it.
Given sufficient funding, Airbus could then start placing contracts with the aerospace industries of those funding countries to begin design and development of the aircraft.
A precursor to that process would inevitably be the setting of the physical and performance requirements of the aircraft. If this were to be done by Airbus rather than by a committee of eight nations, some decisions might actually be reached on the size of the aircraft, its payload and range capabilities, and its powerplant. Airbus has shown itself perfectly capable of doing what the Euroflag consortium has so far patently failed to achieve: talking to the potential customers and deriving the compromise which will most nearly satisfy the requirements of the largest possible spread of those customers.
Given the diverse requirements of the various European governments involved, it is almost impossible that any FLA design will represent the perfect solution. (For instance there is a difference between the French mission profile and that required by the UK and there is still a rumbling discontent among some customers over the choice of turboprop power rather than turbofans.)
If the design process produced an aircraft which did not satisfy every requirement of every potential customer (as it would not), it would then be the choice of the individual customer country to decide whether to buy the FLA compromise instead of a Lockheed Martin compromise, or an Antonov compromise. While that may dilute some of the dream of the universal European airlifter, it might make the reality of a successful European airlifter a little more likely.
Judging on previous evidence, things will not, of course, work out like that. Airbus - which is the only organisation in Europe now capable of managing a project like this - will be left trying to manage the political muddle instead.
If that ends up being the case, all the assurances in the world will not make the FLA a commercial project - or a project at all.
Source: Flight International