TOKYO – Japan and France are jointly developing a new supersonic passenger plane to succeed the retired Concorde (search), but with up to three times as many seats and the potential to fly the Tokyo-to-New York route in six hours, officials and reports said Wednesday.
Defense contractors and engineering companies from the two countries are expected to split an annual investment of about 200 million yen ($1.84 million) for research over the next three years to build the faster-than-sound plane, Japan's Trade Ministry said in a statement. The agreement was signed at the Paris Air Show (search) Tuesday.
The Japanese companies will include Japan Aircraft Development Corp. (search) , a non-profit consortium, government's space agency Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. and Ishikawajima- Harima Heavy Industries Co. Details on French participants were not available.
The cooperation opens the possibility of reducing by half the flight time between New York and Tokyo to six hours on an aircraft with 300 seats — three times the capacity of the Concorde, according to media reports and officials Wednesday.
Amid intensifying global competition for dominance in next-generation planes, "Japan has won itself a major role in the push toward aerospace development," the Mainichi newspaper said in an analysis. But it added that doubts remain whether Japan has the technology to make a supersonic jet commercially viable.
"Japan has taken on both an opportunity and a major risk," it said.
The trade ministry said the two sides will try to resolve the difficulties that plagued the Concorde, including jet-engine noise and high fuel consumption.
Japan has successfully tested an engine that can theoretically reach speeds of up to mach 5.5, or more than five times the speed of sound, the ministry said.
It offers this technological know-how as well as its research in engines and energy conservation, the ministry said.
The French side brings experience from the Concorde, the world's first and only supersonic commercial jet operated by Air France and British Airways, which flew at twice the speed of sound.
"This is truly significant industrial cooperation," Japanese Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said in the statement. "Bringing their respective advantages together ... should lead to the ability to offer highly advanced aircraft and services in the future."
The Concorde first flew in 1969 and became a symbol of French and European industrial acumen. But the planes were retired from commercial service in October 2003, never having recouped the billions of tax dollars invested in them.
The Concorde exploded in flames after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris on July 25, 2000, and slammed into a hotel. The accident, which killed the 109 people on board, presaged an end to the career of the sleek but costly supersonic aircraft.
Japan has been working since 2002 to develop a 250-seater supersonic jet capable of flying at mach 1.6, but the partnership with France would help raise those ambitions, a Japan Aircraft Development Corporation official said.
Officials hope to have the new jet in operation by 2015, flying up to 2.4 times the speed of sound, the Mainichi said.
This week's agreement could also signal closer cooperation with the European airline industry in a country that has long favored working with the Americans.
"To research closely in this area with the Europeans does represent something new," said Yoshio Watanabe, an official with The Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies, which is heading the new initiative on the Japanese side.