January 8, 2019 | Matt
Of all the hateful things in life, there is perhaps no more universal object of displeasure than air travel. It’s something we all seem to have in common. Nobody enjoys battling through airport crowds, standing in a security line for an hour, having a stranger scan your body with science fiction rays, being crammed into a seat that’s too small and having your sinuses worked while babies scream in your ear. It wasn’t always such a chore, though. Or, at least, it wasn’t considered one.
In the “golden era” of air travel, taking an airplane was a luxury affair. People wore their Sunday best. The security was nothing to speak of, the food didn’t come in little cellophane packets, the flight attendants didn’t appear to secretly despise you. Luxury flying is definitely still a phenomenon that is alive and well, just not for the unwashed coach masses. Private jets abound.
One very notable luxury flying experience that came and went in recent years was supersonic flying. Flying faster than sound has long been the province of the world’s militaries. It wasn’t until the late seventies that the technology became available for the commercial market, with the advent of a plane called the Concorde. The Concorde was, for a few years, the absolute pinnacle of luxury flying. Then, through a series of accidents and tragedies, it went the way of the dinosaur.
Now, supersonic flight is back on the table. A handful of startups, backed by government money, are developing new possibilities for supersonic passenger travel. In the not-so-distant future, you may be able to reach your destination in a fraction of the time it takes you on a standard jetliner. If you have the money, that is.
The Concorde Was The World’s Fastest Passenger Plane
The Concorde debuted in 1976, to an astonished world. The plane was faster than any offering available to the public, by a mile. The Concorde was able to travel well above the speed of sound, with a cruising speed of 1,354 miles per hour. That equates to Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound.
The advantages were obvious. If you bought a ticket on a Concorde, you could make the trip between New York and London in only three and a half hours, half of the standard seven aboard a jetliner. It was a technological marvel. Twenty Concordes were produced during its run, including six prototypes. They were generally seen as what they were: a convenience for the mega wealthy.
The Concorde did capture the public imagination. It seemed to imply a future in which faster flights would be made available to a wider segment of the population. Had the Concorde’s trajectory continued unimpeded, that could plausibly have been the case. Unfortunately, though, supersonic flight remained the sole province of people who could spend insane amounts of money on a plane ticket.
A new crop of supersonic planes is in the works. It looks like it might be the same story, at least at the outset. The plane designs are quite impressive, though.
The Concorde Is Now Forgotten
A conglomeration of British and French companies developed the Concorde. It took its first flight in 1969. It didn’t enter commercial service until 1976. After its debut, the Concorde stayed airborne until 2003.
The plane was capable of holding up to 128 passengers. During its heyday, it was virtually unchallenged. It was one of only two supersonic passenger airliners to ever see use. The other was the Tupolev Tu-144, a Soviet aircraft that was only in service in 1977 and 1978.
The Concorde took its final flight in 2003, and since then, has largely faded from memory. While it was once an icon of the international jet setting people, it is now barely remembered at all.
Supersonic flight comes with its own set of problems, that may outweigh its benefits. As mentioned, tickets were exorbitantly expensive. The Concorde, while a wonder for the passengers, was a bit of a nightmare for everyone else. For one, it was a massive polluter. It also produced sound that was literally deafening to people on the ground. Its social costs, in the eyes of many, were too extreme to justify its use. Those same eyes are now turned towards the new breed of supersonic jet, and are leveling the same criticisms.
Should It Stay Forgotten?
The Concorde, plane of the future, was controversial. For starters, it was unaffordable for virtually every human being on the planet. How unaffordable, specifically? A flight from London to New York averaged £4,350. A return flight was about twice as much, with an average price of £8,292.
Who could justify such an expense? Enough people to sustain the Concorde over its 27 year commercial lifespan, apparently. It was the ultimate status symbol, short of flying on your own private jet. Even then, your jet probably could not make it across the Atlantic in three and a half hours. The Concorde was patronized by captains of industry, celebrities and politicians, among other elites.
While everything onboard was pleasant, the earth below was rendered a sonic hellscape by the Concorde’s engines. The plane, traveling twice the speed of sound, produced something called a “boom carpet.” Basically, a continuous sonic boom that was strong enough to inflict permanent hearing loss on anyone caught in it. As the boom carpet passes over you, you experience it as an acute sonic boom, which sounds like an explosion or a thunderclap. Loud enough to drown out the sound of tinkling martini glasses and hearty chortles far above.
Flying With the Hoi Polloi
One of the Concorde’s selling points was that if you bought a ticket, you stood a good chance of encountering a famous person. The Concorde was heavily patronized by movie stars, famous musicians and politicians. Here, Jacques Chirac, then prime minister of France, is seen taking a nap aboard the Concorde while wearing weird little slippers.
It is interesting that only one supersonic jetliner emerged, considering how popular supersonic technology was in the era preceding its development. In the Sixties, supersonics were the hot item in aviation. Speculative aircraft were stopped in their tracks due to extremely high production costs and also pressing concerns about the planes’ significant environmental footprints.
The sting of the $12,000 round-trip ticket was ameliorated by the pleasures of being served restaurant-quality food aboard the plane. The Concorde was an amazing feat of aeronautic engineering. The new supersonics are even more impressive. They also appear to be getting through the vetting process without a lot of legal friction. In fact, legislators seem to be paving the way for them by pruning out pieces of law that might slow their development down to sub-sonic speeds. Despite the significant air and sound pollution they will likely create, the new supersonic planes are coming our way.
High Convenience, High Cost
The Concorde’s biggest selling point was obviously its speed. In spite of the ransom note ticket prices, business people during the Concorde era were known to use the planes to jet between London and New York for day trips. They could be there and back again in time for their evening cocktails.
Their convenience came at major cost for the rest of us. Some of the damage was staunched by legislation aimed at the Concorde. In 1973, the Federal Aviation Administration passed a law banning all supersonic civilian flight over the United States. This law is still a major thorn in the sides of aeronautics companies trying to develop new supersonic technology. The law has worked well. All supersonic travel had to occur while over the ocean, away from innocent eardrums that could suffer major damage if they were to be caught in the Concorde’s sonic wake.
The Concorde was also a major air polluter, due to its insane fuel requirements. Just to taxi from the gate to the runway, a Concorde burned two tons of fuel. Yes, two tons. The Concorde reportedly had to carry about one ton of fuel per passenger it carried. An astonishing quantity of fuel.
The Concorde Had A Bad Crash In 2000
The Concorde suffered what many consider a premature demise in the early two thousands. There were two main precipitating incidents: a crash in July of 2000 and the 9/11 attacks.
Air France Flight 4590, chartered by a German company called Peter Deilmann Cruises, was transporting passengers to the cruise ship MS Deutschland, docked in New York City. The vacationers were to enjoy a sixteen day cruise to Ecuador, but they would never make it. During takeoff in Paris, the plane hit debris on the runway. One of its tires exploded, resulting in a punctured fuel tank that caught fire. The fire engulfed the plane and the engine failed. The Concorde was traveling too fast not to take off, but it wasn’t able to get altitude. It collided with a hotel.
All of the 100 passengers were killed in the wreck, as were all nine crew members. Four people in the hotel were also killed. Another was badly injured.
It was the only crash in the Concorde’s history, but it was the beginning of the end. The Concorde was not able to recuperate from the bad publicity of the accident, and the aviation industry downturn following the 9/11 attacks.
Supersonic Air Travel Is Back, Maybe
When the Concorde died, supersonic passenger air travel died along with it. At least, it took a very long nap.
In 2013, NASA started funding new research and development projects revolving around new models of supersonic air travel. They didn’t put aside a whole lot of money – only $2.3 million. Pocket change in the scope of government R&D money. But it’s a start.
With those initial investments, various startups and big contractors are hard at work on new airplanes that may eventually fill the void left by the Concorde. There are a few roadblocks, of great irritation to the projects’ backers and ideological apologists.
Foremost among them is the still-extant 1973 ban on supersonic flights passing over American soil. Various interest groups are lobbying hard to have that ban lifted. It would open up a domestic market that has been closed for decades. It would also probably cause significant problems for anyone who happens to find themselves under a supersonic flight path.
There is a possibility that someone will develop technology to muffle the “boom carpet” that results from traveling faster than the speed of sound. That’s where a lot of the money is going. If they can develop a quieter supersonic, it will be easier to persuade legislators to play ball.
Prototypes Are Already In The Works
NASA is currently hard at work trying to figure out how to build a supersonic passenger jet that won’t leave a wake of bloody ears behind it. They have conducted tests in both Texas and Florida.
Since air has different properties based on its temperature and humidity, testing the jet technology in different climates is important. What may be functional in Florida may be defunct in Texas, and vice-versa. Any new supersonic will need to be consistently quiet enough to fly in domestic airspace without causing injury to people on the ground.
NASA has also now granted a $247.5 million contract to a plucky startup called Lockheed Martin to tackle the noise issue. They have developed a supersonic plane called the X-59 QueSST. It is currently in the prototype phase, and was designed with sound in mind. It is part of NASA’s “Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator” program, and may fly at noise levels that make it acceptable for domestic use.
Meanwhile, the FAA is being petitioned to lift the ban. A move that President Trump is in favor of. It appears likely that we will be seeing (and hearing) supersonic flights in the United States sooner or later.
Why Do We Need Supersonic Jets?
Supersonic air travel appears to be an especially cherished possibility among very wealthy people. It’s still something that has to be pitched to the public, though, and the justifications sometimes taste a little watery.
This man, Samuel Hammond, published a paper with Eli Dourado titled Make America Boom Again: How To Bring Back Supersonic Transport. Hammond believes that supersonic air travel will open up a lot of new opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Like an intercontinental NBA. If your pupils don’t dilate wildly at that prospect, you’re not alone. There is a lot of pushback against the new wave of supersonic development, largely from environmental groups who are deeply concerned about the amount of air pollution they feel will inevitably attend the new models of plane.
In addition to the larger passenger jets, there are also multiple prototypes of SSBJs, or Supersonic Business Jets, in development. They will be roughly the same size as conventional private jets, and will be able to transport about ten people.
If supersonic air transport presents a potential benefit that will be widely enjoyed, it isn’t obvious. For the foreseeable future, it appears that the major selling point of these jets is that they’re neat.
The Aerion AS2
The massive push for supersonic air transport is energized almost exclusively by the very, very wealthy, who will probably be the only people to enjoy the planes’ conveniences and luxuries.
There are many companies working on prototypes. One of the most prominent is Aerion, who are developing a supersonic business jet on behalf of General Electric. Aerion is also collaborating with Lockheed Martin on the AS2 supersonic business jet. Aerion is hoping to have its first prototypes airworthy by 2023. If all goes according to plan, Aerion will go commercial in 2025.
The AS2 will fly at Mach 1.5 and will carry up to 12 passengers. It will feature design elements that will allow it to fly at 20% increased fuel efficiency over other SSBJs. In a crowded field of new supersonics, it’s hard to tell which is the most sophisticated. The AS2 is certainly a contender to dominate the SSBJ market though.
Aerion, like other companies working on supersonics, are doing so in the gamble that the United States will lift its domestic travel ban. Other companies, like Gulfstream, are opting out of the development race. Their conservative approach may prove to be wise, or may prove shortsighted in the event the lobbyists get their way.
The Boom Overture
One of Aerion’s main competitors is a company called Boom Technology. Boom is a Colorado-based startup that is developing supersonics for Virgin Airlines.
Their flagship offering will be a 55-passenger supersonic transport jet called the Overture. The Overture was incubated by Y Combinator and then raised $51 million of venture capital in 2017. Boom is also working on a smaller model, called the Boom XB-1 Baby Boom, that will be one third the size. They are anticipating flight testing to begin this year.
Boom anticipates charging $200 million in 2016 dollars for each Overture. A price tag that might still be worth it for airlines wanting to offer 3 hour flights between New York and London. The Overture is projected to fly at Mach 2.2 over water. It is also supposed to be more affordable than a flight on the Concorde. A round-trip from New York to London, they claim, will come in at a $5,000 steal.
It will be able to carry 45 passengers, and will have a range of 4,500 nautical miles. This may be the new face of intercontinental air travel. It is one of the most covered of the new supersonic developments.
Will This Be The Supersonic Passenger Plane Of Choice?
The Overture has been through about one thousand wind tunnel tests, but a prototype has not yet taken a real flight.
Short of a complete lift of the supersonic travel ban, the FAA may establish a standard of acceptable noise levels for overland supersonic flight. Supersonic jets may also be made exempt from the FAA’s regulations for how much noise a plane can produce during takeoff. The tradeoff is for fuel efficiency. If supersonics were to comply with the takeoff noise standards as they currently stand, they would have to consume 20-30% more fuel during takeoff. If they were exempted, though, they would be able to implement a narrower engine design that would permit them to accelerate faster, with less fuel. What’s better, air pollution or noise pollution?
Supersonics may also use predictive software, which Honeywell wrote in 2017, to display sonic boom patterns in mid-flight. This would potentially allow pilots to minimize the impact of the aircraft’s boom carpet in realtime.
The total venture capital Boom has raised is $151 million. It is poised to be the most dominant offering in the supersonic passenger jet market on the horizon. Its design certainly looks futuristic. A bit like the Concorde, as well.
Boeing Is Making A Hypersonic Plane
Boeing, the most dominant aircraft manufacturer in North America, also has a dog in the fight. They are working on the world’s first “hypersonic” airliner, which, if the design pans out, will be able to fly five times faster than sound.
That’s Mach 5, or 3,800 miles per hour. A speed unmatched by any passenger aircraft in history. Onboard the as-yet-unnamed super plane, a passenger would be able to make the jaunt from New York to London in two hours. Roughly twice as fast as the Concorde was able to make the trip.
Kevin Bowcutt, Boeing’s chief scientist of hypersonics, described the appeal: “Humankind has always wanted to go faster – always wanted to do things faster. People cannot make time, so there’s an inherent value in time.”
Boeing has also said that the design has potential military applications. As with the other supersonic aircraft, the biggest variables are regulatory red tape and whether or not enough people will be willing to pay the high price of admission. A price that Boeing has yet to set. One imagines it will be prohibitively expensive for the majority of people. One also imagines it may be even more expensive than other supersonic airplanes, which travel at sub-hypersonic speeds.
You’ll Be Able To See Space From The Plane
Most conventional airliners hit a cruising altitude of thirty to forty thousand feet. Boeing’s proposed hypersonic plane, in comparison, is promised to cruise between ninety and ninety-five thousand feet.
That’s a major leap, and would make for a significantly different flying experience. “At that altitude,” describes Bowcutt, “You’re going to see the curvature of the Earth below you. You won’t see the entire Earth, but you will see the curvature – and above you, you’ll have the blackness of space. It’s also a very smooth ride because there isn’t atmospheric turbulence at that altitude.”
One of the tradeoffs is that takeoff might be significantly less comfortable than it currently is. It would take a lot more time to accelerate to Mach 5. Instead of the brief acceleration you experience in a normal plane during takeoff, you would be pushed back into your seat continuously for up to twelve minutes. Considering the fact that you get to see space, it’s not that much to ask.
At the time of this article’s writing, there is no clear expectation of when the hypersonic plane will be prototyped, tested or brought to market. For such an advanced plane, it seems reasonable to expect that we won’t be seeing it for quite some time.
Supersonic Aircraft Are Major Polluters
The Concorde, pictured below, consumed an insane amount of fuel and produced pollution far in disproportion to its size. It took four times more fuel to fly someone on a Concorde than on a Boeing 747.
The new wave of supersonics may be nearly as bad, despite design updates and technological advances. While supersonics are a small part of aviation at large, it’s something worth taking seriously. Research has demonstrated that even accounting for continued technological refinement, carbon dioxide emissions from the global aviation industry currently show no promise of slowing. In fact, air travel is projected to grow continuously for the entire foreseeable future.
This is largely thanks to the fact that international aviation emissions are not regulated to the standards of the ICAO triennial conference. Air fuel is also not taxed, or taxed very low, giving it a commercial edge over other forms of transportation.
If allowed to continue unchecked, international aviation will come to account for virtually the entirety of the planet’s annual carbon dioxide emissions budget. Supersonics are still a pet project of the rich, but if that were to change, it would usher in even more dramatic fuel consumption than we now permit. The picture is not rosy, and environmental advocates caution us not to be beguiled by the new planes’ sleek lines and sleeker marketing.
Reason To Doubt
Carl Pope is an outspoken critic of supersonic air travel. Pope, formerly the executive director of the Sierra Club, is not wowed by these companies’ boasts of improved fuel efficiency.
“It’s a terrible idea for the climate, because the irrevocable fact of physics, that air resistance varies as the square of your speed. You double the speed, you get four times as much air resistance. Then when you hit the sonic boom, it gets worse. And aviation is going to be put on a very limited fuel budget. I mean, that’s going to be one of the outcomes of the climate crisis.”
If what Pope says is true, supersonics may already have a very limited shelf life. In his projected scenario, where international governing bodies impose fuel rations to curb emissions, these new aircraft would not have an easy time finding justification for their gluttonous fuel consumption.
Pope is not alone. There is a lot of public pressure to reduce carbon emissions in the aviation industry. It’s hard to see the upshot of making planes even less fuel efficient, even if they confer the short-term benefit of getting us to our destinations faster. Do the costs outweigh the benefits? Pope thinks so.
American May Not Tolerate Sonic Booms
In addition to all the legal and environmental hoops the supersonics are blasting their way through / around, there is also the issue of whether or not the public will tolerate supersonic travel domestically. Even with noise levels reduced from where they were in the Concorde era, supersonics will still probably be significantly louder than standard jets.
Supersonics are likely to hit a hard wall with how much noise pollution Americans will be willing to tolerate. Even among a population typically agog with wonder over anything expensive and technologically advanced, it’s hard to imagine people willingly living under flight paths that bombard them constantly with sonic booms, even muffled ones.
Carl Pope comments on this, as well. “The idea that you’re actually going to be able to overcome local opposition to supersonic aviation routes? We can’t build a new freeway in this country, because of local opposition. Why does everybody think we’re going to be able to assault hundreds of millions of people with sonic booms? This is not real.”
Time will tell. As it currently stands, there’s no clear indication of whether or not the government will buckle on the domestic travel ban. America may yet be made to boom again.
Air Pollution Kills People
According to a study that was recently published, pollution from civil aircraft may be responsible for 16,000 global deaths annually. The study, which investigated both the local and global impact of airplane emissions, suggests that the airline industry may have a significant amount of blood on its hands.
The health impact is caused by very small particulate matter that is emitted by airplane engines. The particles are ten micrometers in diameter or smaller. If you breathe enough of these particles, you can suffer major health consequences. According to the study, if you live close to an airport, you are at higher risk, but the entire planet is effected. The study also says that up to a quarter of the deaths attributable to this air pollution is caused by emissions produced during take-off and landing.
In light of these facts, it bears repeating that the price we pay for supersonic airplanes is one we pay as a species, and one that may be too high. Recall that the Concorde burned two tons of fuel just to taxi from the gate to the runway. What is time worth? Is a three hour trip to London this important? Some people still say yes.
Is The Future Supersonic?
The new supersonic airplanes are incredible feats of engineering and design. When they are brought to market, whether for domestic and intercontinental or strictly intercontinental use, they will surely capture the public’s attention. And for those elite few who will be able to afford to step foot in them, they will confer an unparalleled level of comfort and convenience.
For the rest of us, the best we can probably hope for is to fly vicariously through YouTube videos. Unless you have a spare five grand sitting around, you may have to wait a very long time for supersonic supply to catch up with demand. Which, considering the environmental costs associated with it, is an eventuality we may not want at all.
Where is the limit, where the price of technological advancement is too high? A question we have been asking ourselves since the industrial revolution, certainly. One we will have to ask ourselves again in light of the (quite literal) boom in supersonic passenger aircraft. Or, maybe it’s a question that will be simply ignored in the inexorable forward march of big money.
For now, the majority of us will stay cramped in our uncomfortable seats and closet bathrooms. The ones at the back of the planes.
Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.