Douglas Barrie/LONDON Andrea Spinelli/GENOA

The Airbus-led European Future Large Aircraft (FLA) programme faces a key go-ahead decision early in February, against a background of increasing political pressure to use the Antonov An-70 as the baseline for the project.

The FLA Policy Group is scheduled to meet in the first week of February, with approval to begin the pre-launch activity (PLA) phase of the programme, which is certain to be high on the agenda.

While Airbus sources say that it continues to work on the premise that the FLA requirement will be met by its aircraft design, Germany is in the vanguard of a political campaign being conducted to forge a joint programme based on the An-70.

The lobby behind the An-70 includes Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who has raised the possibility with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac of using the An-70 as the basis of a European military-transport programme.

Obtaining approval for the PLA phase of the FLA programme in the first quarter of 1998 is critical, if the Royal Air Force - which could receive the first production aircraft - is to meet its 2004 planning date for the replacement of its remaining Lockheed Martin C-130K Hercules tactical transports.

The An-70 is also gaining political momentum in Italy, according to military sources. The Italian air force has been instructed by the Government to review the technical and operational characteristics of the Antonov aircraft in relation to its FLA requirement.

Despite the political momentum behind the Ukrainian-built aircraft, Airbus sources say:" There is nobody in the core FLA team working on the possibility of a co-operative programme."

In the UK, the Ministry of Defence says: "Although we have nothing against the An-70 in principle, we remain to be convinced of its merits." Senior RAF officers, already lukewarm towards the FLA programme, are understood to be unimpressed by the An-70 option.

If, however, the An-70 emerges as a serious alternative to the proposed Airbus design, it will inevitably slow progress on the launch of the PLA process, and the overall programme schedule. This would be particularly problematic for the RAF, given the 2004 C-130K replacement date.

Source: Flight International