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Agreement to look at delayed plane deal

DEFENSE ministers from the seven European nations that launched the troubled A400M military transport plane have agreed to renegotiate the contract for the delayed project.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin, who hosted a meeting in the French village of Le Castellet in the Provence region last Friday, said governments could sign the new contract as early as December, around the time of the expected first flight.

The project is one of Europe's most ambitious joint military-industrial undertakings, and has suffered several costly hangups.

Britain's defense procurement minister Quentin Davies, whose country has been most critical about the delays, warned that reaching a deal "won't be easy" and "isn't a foregone conclusion."

"It's very important ministers continue to keep closely focused on the program to make sure that we don't allow any further delays to arise," he said. "I hope we are able to reach contract signature about the same time as first flight, around the turn of the year."

Ministers agreed to start new talks after the summer vacation on who bears the cost of the delays, a new timetable and on each country's capacity needs before a meeting in Germany in mid-October, Morin said.

"If the results are positive and if all the negotiations are conclusive" in Germany, lawyers will start drawing up a new contract, he said.

That could be signed in December - or at the start of next year - in the Spanish city of Seville, where the A400M is being assembled and where it is set to make its first flight, he said.

The A400M program is being developed by Airbus and parent company EADS and was launched in 2003 with an order for 180 planes from Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey.

The hulking, gray aircraft with a black nose and four black propellers with curved blades is designed to replace Lockheed Martin Corp's aging C-130 Hercules as well as the retired C-160 Transall transport aircraft developed by a French and German consortium.

But it has been plagued by costly delays. EADS missed a March 31 contractual deadline for the first flight, and it could have to repay as much as 5.7 billion euros (US$8 billion) to governments if the project were canceled.


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