Back To The Future

Supersonic Jets Are Making A Comeback; But The ROI On Projects Isn't Guaranteed

 
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In a world moving faster, commercial air travel speeds are overdue for an upgrade. Supersonic flights have been possible for 70 years, but the last commercial flight traveling faster than the speed of sound was in 2003. Now aerospace organizations are backing projects to bring superfast travel back—for transoceanic flights, at least.

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“When [the overland flying ban is overturned], aircraft manufacturers … [can] develop products to fill the demand for faster aircraft.”

—Peter Iosifidis, Lockheed Martin, Palmdale, California, USA

Overland supersonic travel is banned in most countries because of the sonic booms generated by faster-than-sound planes that disturb people on the ground. For the next generation of supersonic jets to be a widely available travel option—and have a stronger business case—they'll need to be quieter.

NASA is backing a project that could help lead the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to overturn its 45-year-old ban on overland supersonic commercial flights. The U.S. space agency awarded Lockheed Martin a US$20 million contract for preliminary work on an experimental plane, or X-plane, that will reach supersonic speeds with little more than a soft thump, says Peter Iosifidis. As QueSST program manager at Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works division, Palmdale, California, USA, he's responsible for the low boom flight demonstrator (QueSST stands for “quiet supersonic technology”).

NASA plans to spend roughly US$323 million on the project between 2018 and 2022, with a goal of demonstrating quieter supersonic travel. After the X-plane's first flight, slated for early 2021, the organization aims to provide a recommendation to the FAA to overturn the ban while establishing an acceptable commercial supersonic noise level.

“When that's done, aircraft manufacturers will have the capability to go develop products to fill the demand for faster aircraft. That would allow consumers to be able to fly from point A to point B in about half the time it takes right now,” Mr. Iosifidis says.

Time Is Money

With the right product in hand, supersonic jets could be a boon for commercial airlines, says Anurag Garg, director, aerospace and defense, PWC's Strategy&, New Delhi, India. And if upstart aircraft manufacturers move fast, they could challenge the industry's dominant players.

“For organizations trying to break the Boeing/Airbus duopoly, it would be key to carve out a niche for supersonic jets sooner and grow the market from there to justify minimum economic quantities,” he says.

That's precisely what Boom Technology plans to do. The U.S. company backed by Virgin Group claims its new supersonic jet will reach Mach 2.2, or 1,451 miles per hour (2,335 kilometers per hour), making it 2.6 times faster than any commercial plane currently in operation. Boom boasts that new technology used to create the airliner will enable fares 75 percent lower than the Concorde, the last supersonic plane in flight, putting prices on par with today's business-class tickets. (The Concorde was retired 15 years ago in part due to high prices, safety and limited consumer demand in the post-9/11 airline industry slump.)

But to attract high-net-worth flyers, airlines will need to convince them that supersonic travel is worth a trade-off between luxury and speed, Mr. Garg says. And the trade-off can't be too big. “Companies would have to see how good of a flight experience, including seating and leg space, can be ensured without escalating the price even further,” he says.

Barrier Breakers

Commercial supersonic jet project teams are moving fast to make it to market. Because overland supersonic travel is widely banned, their focus is on developing small aircraft serving business-class passengers on overseas routes.

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Safety First

Along with innovation, NASA's X-plane project is putting safety front and center. A high-profile Concorde crash that killed 113 people in 2000 was one factor that triggered the decline in supersonic ticket sales. But a strong focus on risk management has helped NASA and Lockheed Martin demonstrate the new technology's safety, Mr. Iosifidis says.

Lockheed worked closely with NASA and other government stakeholders for months to determine the project's airworthiness requirements and how they would be met. The resulting list included roughly 900 line items that needed to be tested and tracked, he says. “Once we determined the criteria, we jointly decided how we were going to verify that we've accomplished that requirement,” he says.

While progress is underway, it likely will be at least five years after the establishment of an acceptable noise level before airlines start selling supersonic jet tickets. Boom says its first planes will be operational in 2023, and NASA's preliminary design project will likely extend to 2024. After the X-plane's first flight, the agency plans to conduct community response flights over population centers to see how people feel about its noise levels.

“Then NASA will analyze the data before it can make a recommendation to the FAA as to what the rule change should be,” Mr. Iosifidis says.

—Tegan Jones

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