The age of supersonic transport has returned. This time around, advocates want it not only to succeed but also to become the new way of commercial air travel. This post will provide the history of supersonic transport, the current efforts, and the regulatory hurdles that need to be conquered to make supersonic transport a reality again.
The first breakthrough in supersonic transport occurred when Sud Aviation (later Aérospatiale) and British Aircraft Corporation came together to develop and manufacture a supersonic aircraft known as Concorde. They built 20 aircraft – 6 prototypes and 14 commercial aircraft – with British Airways and Air France the only carriers to buy the aircraft. Concorde’s first flight took off in March 1969; it was first introduced to passengers in January 1976. Its allure was in its purported ability to fly passengers at the speed of sound—Mach 2.04, or 1,354 mph, at 60,000 feet.
Most people know Concorde as the plane that could cut a flight from New York to London from 7 hours to 3.5 hours. Concorde was not a large aircraft, only big enough for about 100 passengers, and tickets were expensive. The average roundtrip price was about $12,000, roughly 30 times the cost of tickets on other carriers. The aircraft initially served many routes, like London and Paris to Washington, DC, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Miami, Singapore, but British Airways and Air France had to scale back on routes because they were neither profitable nor filled to capacity. The only route that made a profit was the JFK to London route, but it was not enough to save the project.
Concorde flew for 24 years before its first accident. In July 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed after taking off from Paris, killing all 109 passengers and four ground crew. One year later the 9/11 attacks occurred, pulling significant available resources away from aviation investment and into counterterrorism. The last nail in the coffin for Concorde was the end of maintenance support by Airbus, who took over Aérospatiale and British Aircraft Corporation. British Airways’ Concorde took its last flight on October 24, 2003, departing westbound from London, in an apparent end to that chapter of supersonic aviation.
One current effort to revitalize supersonic aviation is through a startup company called Boom Technology. Started in 2014, the Denver-based company is attempting to back supersonic transport that will transform commercial air travel. As of now, the aircraft will fly at Mach 2.2 at 60,000 feet.
The company plans to have the aircraft fly routes like Los Angeles to Sydney, San Francisco to Tokyo, and New York to London. Faster than Concorde, all routes will cut current flight times in half. For example, the New York to London route is expected to take 3 hours and fifteen minutes, shaving 15 minutes off of Concorde’s original flight time. With developments in technology, Boom estimates the cost of a plane ticket to be far less costly than that of Concorde. A typical one-way fare for New York to London on Boom is estimated to cost $2,500, which is similar to prices on current carriers for a business class seat.
Boom’s aircraft are scheduled to enter the market beginning in 2023. However, there are some regulatory hurdles that Boom needs to conquer to be able to roll out commercial supersonic aircraft. The largest hurdle is the 1973 federal sonic boom regulation placed on trans-American routes. Since 1973, supersonic air travel over the US has been illegal. The regulation prohibits flights over US land because of the disturbances that sonic booms could cause to neighborhoods in their flight paths.
However, the laws set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are presently up for renegotiation. Both the House and Senate have FAA reauthorization bills with positive language on supersonics. The Senate bill, S. 1405, calls on the FAA to review supersonic regulations within six months of passing and report to Congress with recommended changes. The House bill, H.R. 4, gives the FAA a year to report back to Congress. Congress has to pass one of the reauthorization bills or grant a short-term extension by September 30th to ensure the agency is funded. The FAA reauthorization bill looks to be most likely to lift the restrictions on supersonic transport.
Looking back at Concorde, one can say that it was a great technological advancement for its time and for the future of aviation. However, the dream of supersonic transport will be reborn by the efforts of companies like Boom Technology. This succinct summary of supersonic transport shows how supersonics can be redeemed in the twenty-first century and hopefully stick around for good. Along with more research and improved safety design of these aircraft, Congress needs to say yes to supersonics.