Will super-sonic travel ever return?


It seems strange that technology has progressed in almost every field, but in supersonic travel things have seemingly regressed.

Concorde was flying people faster than the speed of sound back in 1976, but since its retirement in 2003 there has been no commercial supersonic flight. Why not, and please can we have it back? The good news is, there are plans to re-introduce it — lots of plans — with different groups currently working on new aircraft.

Manufacturers such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Tupolev, Gulfstream and Aerion are all developing new supersonic technologies — with the latter brand predicting it could have a supersonic business jet in service as early as 2020. But there are factors hindering development, including high costs and heavy fuel consumption.
Noise pollution is another issue. When objects hit speeds of about 770 mph they create a sonic boom. That sound is so loud that the United States banned supersonic commercial flights over its land (although they seem happy to let their own military jets do this regularly). A big reduction in the level of “boom” is necessary to ensure key routes could be travelled in the future.

Sonic boom suppression technology is still a work in progress, but advancement is being made and it’s this sort of progress that enables manufacturers to talk of launch dates. Once that issue is addressed they then have to look at what powers supersonic travel — a huge amount of jet fuel. With fossil fuels increasing in cost, engineers are looking at ways to use less energy and thus help increase viability in terms of cost-per-passenger.

Lighter composite materials, smaller fuselages and more advanced engines are the key here. Not only do they aim to save fuel, they will also increase speed. Concorde cut the flying time between London and New York from seven hours 40 minutes to three hours 25 minutes, cruising at a speed of 1,358mph. The proposed SonicStar by HyperMach would be able to go twice that speed and could fly from London to Sydney in the same time. The SonicStar, however, would carry fewer than 20 passengers and be aimed at the VIP market.

But that market is growing. Eddy Pieniazek, global head of consultancy at Ascend, a flight advisory service, tells Esquire, “The good news is, there will always be people that will want to, or will need to, get from A to B as quickly as possible. The traditional homes of premium travel, such as North America and Europe, are being joined by Asia and China specifically and this could bring a whole new clientele to the market.

“At the moment, the commercial argument for supersonic aircraft is hard to justify in economic terms. However, there are elements of business aviation where it might do. The very wealthy, for example, are often driven by something other than purely commercial decisions. Prestige, convenience, security, and time are some of the driving factors. This may lead to smaller jets becoming the first of a new generation that come to the market.”

To make bigger planes commercially viable, the goal is to have ticket prices comparable to regular business class. The Japanese Space Agency JAXA is working on a plane that will fly at the same speed as Concorde. But, crucially, it will carry three times as many passengers (300) and operate with double the flying range.

“Currently, you can pay, for example, $600 for an economy seat or $6,000 for a business class seat – both of which will be found on the same flight,” Pieniazek says. “You take off at the same time, and land at exactly the same time, regardless of what you have paid. The only difference for your money is the level of comfort. Supersonic travel will introduce another variable – saving time. Passengers will ultimately decide which of these factors they consider to be the most important to their needs.”

Sadly, a few exciting projects have already been abandoned for financial reasons. Boeing’s Sonic Cruiser (pictured above) was scrapped in 2002 as lower operating costs were favoured over speed. Accordingly, Boeing then developed the more prosaic 787 Dreamliner – the Prius of commercial aircraft.

As Pieniazek points out, “With fuel prices where they are today, and where they are anticipated to be in future, the economics for mass travel may be a stretch too far unless further efficiencies are won.” So rather than mass transport, it’s more likely we’ll first see smaller jets, with huge ticket prices, offering supersonic travel to the ultra rich.

Given that there are currently around 24 million millionaires around the world, according to Credit Suisse (individuals with net assets exceeding $1 million) there could well be a viable market. Or as Pieniazek puts it, “supersonic travel could simply be all about the value of time.”

For Esquire Magazine, December 2012

For PDF version click here

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