East bloc is slow to buy Western aircraft. SHORT OF WESTERN CASH
Boston — Despite early enthusiasm, sales of Western aircraft to Eastern Europe have not exactly taken off. In recent months the Soviet Union's allies have been exploring the possibility of buying planes from the Boeing Company and McDonnell Douglas Corporation in the United States and the European Airbus Industrie consortium, to replace some of their Soviet-made aircraft.
The appeal is clear, analysts say. Compared with the Soviet behemoths in the aging East-bloc fleets, Western jets are more fuel efficient (and thus more economical), safer, quieter, more reliable, and more appealing to passengers.
The fact that Western planes don't make the racket that Soviet planes do is one strong point in their favor.
``The Soviets don't have aircraft at this time that could meet noise requirements at all Western airports,'' says Jacek Kalabinski, senior correspondent in Washington for Radio Free Europe's Polish service.
So some countries are finding the idea of substituting Western planes for Soviet ones irresistible. Boeing and Airbus are now negotiating the sale of eight or nine long-distance aircraft to three East-bloc nations. But apart from these possible deliveries, no new prospects have been announced.
``Obviously, the sales process takes a while,'' says Craig Martin, a Boeing spokesman.
And looking to the future, Greg Schulte, an Airbus spokesman, says, ``I don't want to sound too optimistic, because each sale must be approved individually.''
So far, Airbus and Boeing have been given the green light to sell to three countries: three Airbus A-310s to East Germany; two or three Boeing 767s to Poland; and three Boeing 767s to Romania.
The approval came from the Coordinating Committee for Multinational Export Control, which must agree to any sale of Western high technology to the Soviet bloc.
One reason the committee cleared the aircraft is that the planes will be repaired in the West. In the case of the jets to be sold to East Germany's Interflug airline, for example, service will be done in West Germany by Lufthansa.
The support of Western governments for the sales is one less hurdle for the communist governments to clear.
``The political will seems to be there,'' says Christopher Demisch, an analyst with First Boston in New York. ``So I see no obstacle from that point of view.''
But East-bloc governments have not leaped to buy Western aircraft.
``The East Europeans were fairly ambiguous about it. First of all, they don't want to offend the Russians,'' Mr. Kalabinski says. ``However, the airlines themselves are very eager to get Western aircraft.''
The big problem the airlines face is financing. The East European countries, like the Soviet Union itself, have closed currencies - currencies that circulate only within the country and are not traded on the world market. Consequently, they must find ways of getting Western (``hard'') funds to pay for the aircraft.
The most widely applied solution has been for Western financing consortiums to buy the aircraft and then lease them to the East-bloc airlines. The airlines, in turn, would use revenues from Western travelers to make the lease payments.
And with attractive new Western aircraft in their stables, East-bloc countries could have greater potential to woo more Western tourists.
The Poles seem particularly well situated to promote package tourism, Kalabinski says. They chose the Boeing 767 because it can fly from Poland to Chicago and Los Angeles, he says. In Chicago alone, there are more than 1 million Poles.
But it's not just sheer numbers working in Poland's favor.
``There are few national groups more dedicated to going back,'' says John Hardt, associate director of the Congressional Research Service in Washington.
Success with long-distance aircraft could lead Poland and other Soviet-bloc countries to what Kalabinski sees as the logical next step: the purchase of medium-range aircraft to help promote tourism between Eastern and Western Europe.
``I believe that, in the case of Poland, with their medium-range fleet deteriorating rapidly, they will try to acquire more Boeings,'' he says.
But Paul Nesbit, an analyst with Prudential-Bache in New York, sees Eastern Europe's lack of hard currency and its fundamental orientation toward the Soviet economy as brakes on any vast undertaking to Westernize their fleets.
The current opportunity, he says, is not dissimilar to the opening of China as a market for Western aircraft in the early 1970s - ``very, very slow to materialize and very expensive to market.''