For Aeronautics in 1970, SST was one of some sort of challenges particularly in America and France. Technically, considerable progress was made on development of a supersonic jet transport. But commercially and politically, the American and Anglo-French SST’s (supersonic jet transport) faced problems.
Both the Soviet TU-144 and the Anglo-French Concorde prototypes reached their Mach 2—plus design speeds in flight-test programs during the year. The Soviet plane flew at 1,538 miles per hour; the French and British Concorde prototypes both flew repeatedly above Mach 2 in critical performance tests on which firm contracts to the airlines will be offered. A total of 16 airlines have placed options for 74 Concordes, but these cannot be converted into firm orders until the detailed performance specifications and prices are tendered the airlines in the spring of 1971.
Advance word on what those prices might be sent shock waves through the airline industry. F. C. Wiser, president of Trans World Airlines, claimed that the Concorde’s limited seating capacity (120 passengers) made it impossible for any airline to make a profit on supersonic flights except by charging 30 to 40 percent more than regular transatlantic air fares. With airlines’ funds for new investments severely limited, Najeeb Halaby of Pan American cautioned the British and French governments not to plan any production of the Concorde beyond the ten prototypes, preproduction models, and production models already under way.
The French and British governments are to decide the fate of the Concorde in February 1971. The project’s English critics contend that what has kept Concorde going is the hope of future spin-off benefits, the considerable amount of prestige that both nations have invested in the project, and the reported threat that France would sue for damages if Britain pulled out of its half of the contract.
News of the Concorde troubles—and of the painful sonic boom that accompanied a Concorde test flight over Scotland — undoubtedly helped Senate foes of the American SST (supersonic jet transport) program. On December 3, for the first time, the Senate turned down (52-41) a presidential request for $290 million to continue work on two Boeing SST prototypes. Previous sessions of Congress had appropriated more than $700 million for the program; $80 million had been contributed by Boeing and General Electric, and an additional $60 million had been granted by six U.S. airlines and KLM. Twenty-six airlines had deposited $22 million to reserve 122 delivery positions on the Boeing production line, if there is one.
The Senate anti-SST (supersonic jet transport) vote climaxed a series of victories for environmentalist lobbies, whose main speakers were Senator Gaylord Nelson and Senator William Proxmire. In an attempted compromise, pro-SST (supersonic jet transport) forces had sponsored—and the Senate on December 2 had unanimously approved—two resolutions banning supersonic flight over land and requiring that the SST’s (supersonic jet transport) operate more quietly in every flight stage than current jetliners.
What the pro-SST (supersonic jet transport) forces were stressing was economics: the ill health of the aircraft industry; rising unemployment, especially in Seattle (two leading pro-SST (supersonic jet transport) speakers were senators from Washington, and organized labor lobbied strongly for the appropriation); the balance-of-payments deficit that allegedly would accrue if U.S. airlines had to buy foreign SST’s; and the $278 million in forfeiture payments needed simply to terminate the contracts. After the Senate vote, the pro-SST (supersonic jet transport) forces hoped that there would be a renewed national sense of technological inevitability. As President Richard M. Nixon said, in urging a Senate-House conference to restore what the Senate had deleted: ‘The SST (supersonic jet transport) is an airplane that will be built and flown. This issue is simply which nation will build them.’
The Senate-House conference did restore most of the administration’s request, but anti-SST (supersonic jet transport) Senate forces then filibustered to block the Department of Transportation measure containing the SST (supersonic jet transport) funds. Finally, a new Senate-House conference was appointed and its recommendations approved: continued funding of the SST (supersonic jet transport) at the $290 million level until March 1971, when the issue will be reconsidered. Aeronautics in 1970 saw anti and pro SST (supersonic jet transport) forces put up stiff battles to make their case known.