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AIRBUS SAYS that its U.S. rivals get unfair help from Washington. After losing a recent $6 billion Saudi Arabian airliner deal to Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, Europe's Airbus Industrie renewed its old charge that NASA and the Pentagon indirectly subsidize the commercial U.S. aerospace industry. A consortium of France, Germany, Britain, and Spain, 20-year-old Airbus says its government subsidies are just loans needed to counter the U.S. public money.

IN REALITY, Airbus' accounting of public aid to U.S. competitors--purportedly up to $22 billion over the past 15 years--is suspect. Airbus assumes that up to 90% of Uncle Sam's money spent for space and defense R&D contracts has value for commercial aviation. But the space shuttle, NASA's biggest program, has almost no commercial application, nor does costly stealth technology. By law, Washington must recoup the benefits of technology transfer to U.S. commercial aviation, which had repaid $170 million as of March, 1992. By U.S. count, Airbus has netted up to $26 billion in government loans that may never be fully repaid.EDITED BY WILLIAM D. MARBACH AND JULIE TILSNER Paul Magnusson

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