Supersonic aircraft are not coming back.
A few weeks ago, on March 2nd, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Concorde first taking flight. The whole world was excited about the arrival of commercial supersonic transport. The newest jet promised to reduce flying times between various destinations more than double. Additionally, top of the line service and luxurious cabin promised passengers the experience of a lifetime.
But the hype did not last long, as airlines and Concorde developers realized that the supersonic jet had a lot of issues. Sure, it was reliable and had an excellent safety record apart from the fatal Air France Flight 4509 accident. But the economics of the Concorde was too much to handle. So, when the circumstances shifted after the Paris accident, the September 11th attacks and the subsequent drop-off in passengers, Air France and British Airways retired the Concorde.
However, over the past few years reports have emerged that various start-ups are promising that a 3-hour flight between New York and London is making a comeback. Airlines, namely Virgin Atlantic and Japan Airlines are investing in Boom Aviation, which promises to revolutionize air travel. Meanwhile, Boeing is partnering with Aerion Supersonic to create a very slick supersonic business jet.
Nevertheless, in this article post, we will argue why supersonic transport is not making a comeback. Firstly, we will take a look back at the past and why did airlines cancel the Concorde. Secondly, we will look into some of the flaws of a supersonic airliner that are almost impossible to overcome and thus draw a conclusion on why we won’t be breaching supersonic speeds anytime soon.
Waving goodbye to Concorde – Why?
So on November 26th, 2003 Concorde departed for its final flight from London Heathrow Airport to its resting home at Aerospace Bristol, an aerospace museum at Filton. Whenever someone asks why Concorde stopped flying across the Atlantic, the answer can be simplified into 5 pointers:
Air France Flight 4509 crash
Although previous to this the Concorde had 0 fatal accidents, the Paris crash discouraged passengers to travel on the supersonic jet. And with very tight profit margins, airlines simply could not afford to operate a Concorde at half capacity.
September 11th attacks
After the Air France Flight 4509 crash, aviation authorities grounded the supersonic aircraft to prevent any further loss of lives. As investigators concluded the reasons for the crash, Concorde’s manufacturers improved the jet’s safety for a price of £17m. Subsequently, Concorde returned to commercial service in November of 2001. However, just 2 months before, the September 11 attacks happened. As a result of the attacks, for a few years passenger numbers dropped drastically. This did not help Concorde, as it was already losing passengers because of the Air France Flight 4509 accident.
Economics of the Concorde
A return ticket from London’s Heathrow Airport to JFK in 2003 would start at £7405. To illustrate, British Airways concluded the last commercial Concorde flights on October 24th, 2003. If I was to book a return ticket from LHR to JFK with British Airways and I would return to London on the 24th of October, just 16 years later, I would pay £6437. Adjust the 2003 number for inflation and the Concorde ticket comes out to a jaw-dropping price of £11,500. That’s quite a difference for essentially save 4 hours on a flight. But the Concorde simply cannot compete against the first class cabin of a Boeing 747, the aircraft that British Airways operates on the route.
Airbus saying no
At the time Concorde retired, the supersonic jet was already 34 years old, if we were to count from the time that the revolutionary jet first took flight in 1969. While the technologies were ground-breaking at the time, as time went on, they became outdated. Even up until its last flights, every Concorde had 2 pilots and a flight engineer onboard, while every other airliner since the early 1980s did not have a need for a flight engineer, as computers and digital technologies eliminated the need for a flight engineer to be on an aircraft.
And the trend continued throughout the cockpit of Concorde – everything became too outdated. If the Air France Flight 4509 accident sparked the need for a £17m investment package, updating the systems on Concorde would have been much, much, much higher.
Apart from the need to update the aircraft, you also needed to maintain it. As the aircraft was old, maintaining it was a costly operation for airlines and the company that maintained it, which was Airbus. British Airways and Airbus could not come to an agreement for maintenance and production of spare parts for the aircraft, thus it was the final nail in the coffin.
Sonic Booms and overland flight ban
What is a Sonic Boom? In short, it is the result of an object moving faster than the speed of sound and leaving a trail of shock waves behind. These booms generate a lot of sound energy and when objects that create the sonic booms are very large, such as aircraft, they potentially can cause damage to ears, shatter windows or shift the structure of a building, although such cases are very rare.
As a result, the United States government banned over-land supersonic flights in 1973, meaning Concorde could operate on very limited routes.
But let’s get back to the point. There were 5 reasons why airlines retired Concorde from their fleets. But can we transfer those reasons to any new and upcoming supersonic aircraft, a business jet or not?
To be honest, the answer is not a simple yes or no. So, let’s break the reasons one by one and come to a conclusion.
Sonic booms – can the issue be solved?
First of all, let’s start with the easy part – the bans. According to a Reuters article, for now the U.S. over-land routes are going to remain banned. That might change when NASA releases a study on Sonic Booms by 2025.
Europe has also banned supersonic aircraft traveling over the continent. As of now, it has no plans to overturn that ban. The reason for that is that all the current supersonic startups are American, which means there is no European company to benefit if the European Union decides to overturn the ban.
But the companies which plan to build the newest supersonic jets are promising that they will be much quieter and sonic booms will not be a concern. Even NASA, partnered with Lockheed Martin, is building a quiet SST. Called the X-59 QueSST, the experimental aircraft aims to prove that overland flights with an SST are a possibility.
Is this possible?
Yes. Well, you cannot completely eliminate a sonic boom. It will always be there. However, you can reduce it to a tolerable level. If Concorde’s sonic booms were between 100 and 110 decibels, NASA and Lockheed aim to reduce the sonic boom decibel levels to 75.
If NASA and Lockheed succeed, I can see the ban being overturned. One more advantage is that multiple corporations, not including NASA and Lockheed, are developing the airframe and aerodynamics of the new SST. Which means that these companies need to spend much less money than Britain and France when they developed the Concorde.
So, supersonic transport is off to a good start and my opinion might be wrong. But let’s continue exploring the possibilities.
However, to reduce the sonic boom noise, a lot of money has to go into the development of the aircraft. If the development costs go up, the end-price of a jet also goes up. This, in turn, means that airlines have to price tickets accordingly to recoup the high price of an aircraft.
Boom Supersonic, one of the manufacturers developing the next Concorde, promises their Overture jet will travel at Mach 2.2 and provide a business class experience like no other. It also promises to airlines game-changing profitability. Currently, Boom promises a 55-seat supersonic aircraft
Aerion is another manufacturer. They are developing the AS2, a business jet able to fly at Mach 1.4. The company promises to use the base of the AS2 to develop a bigger private jet and a small commercial airliner in the future.
And the last manufacturer, Spike is developing a quiet business supersonic jet, named the Spike S-512. Cruising speed is set at Mach 1.6. The S-512 will seat from 12 to 18 people, depending on the configuration.
And if you noticed something, there is one word that can describe the three jets – business.
But is that a correct decision? As passenger numbers break records every single year, so does the market share of LCC’s. Both airlines and passengers are starting to prioritize price rather than over-the-top comfort, that is why low-cost carriers are attracting more passengers.
The newest supersonic jets promise faster flights for business passengers. But market trends are shifting to cheaper prices, rather than comfort or speed. According to a European Union study of the air transport market, 18% of passengers chose to travel with low-cost carriers in 2015. Compared to 2014, that is an increase of 3%.
Sure, those seem like small numbers. But they are steadily rising and the matter of the fact is that we are not going to see the supersonic jets in the air for at least 3 to 4 years. Even then, those will be just the first test flights and when you’re developing a jet, no matter subsonic or supersonic, there will always be delays. Add to the fact that NASA will release their sonic boom impact study only in 2025, I predict that there won’t be a supersonic jet that can fully operate everywhere for at least 10 years.
So, low-cost carriers will have even more time to capture a bigger portion of the market and transfer even more passengers.
Thus, we have to ask ourselves: are the newest supersonic jets already cornering themselves by aiming at a business-only audience? We do think so.
Anyhow, this is the first reason we think about why they won’t fly. If the demand is not there, what’s the point of providing the supply? Furthermore, even if there is demand, you have to consider that there are already many private jet manufacturers, even if they are subsonic. However, most of the newest jets can reach speeds of up to Mach 0.9, like the record-breaking Bombardier Global 7500. So, again, is there even enough demand to produce more business jets?
Another recent trend in the world of aviation is the word efficiency. Airlines want to save money on every cost possible, including fuel. That is why airlines are shying away from the fuel-guzzling aircraft like the Airbus A380. As a result, the manufacturer is forced to cancel the whole program.
And the Concorde was a lot of things. However, it definitely was not an efficient aircraft. It used afterburners to break through the barrier of sound and afterburners are not an efficient solution. They consume a lot of fuel but do not add a lot of thrust.
Nevertheless, the newest developments in technology have not only allowed switching to materials like carbon fiber (Concorde primarily used aluminum) but use turbofan engines instead of turbojets to achieve supersonic speed. All of the above mentioned supersonic jets will use turbofans (Spike has not yet revealed their engine), avoiding the inefficient turbojet counterparts.
But turbofans have a very specific window when they are the most efficient and because supersonic aircraft have to be very structurally sound, they also weight much more than a subsonic jet. Meaning that to cruise at supersonic speeds, the engines consume much more fuel compared to subsonic speeds.
Which again prompts a question whether there is a demand for new supersonic aircraft? If they are inefficient, I very highly doubt that airlines today or even in 4 to 5 years’ time would be interested in them. As fuel prices continue to rise, the demand for supersonic aircraft will fall drastically.
Although I, just like anybody else would love to see the comeback of SSTs, I do not think it will happen.
At least under current circumstances of the market, when efficiency, fuel saving and low prices dictate the demand. If airlines are retiring such titans like the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747 and switching to the more efficient, double-engine Airbus A350 and 777 to decrease operating costs, there is just no room in the sky for jets with high operating costs.
As for the business jet market, there are already business jets comfortably reaching Mach 0.9. So why would you pay a lot of money just to fly a bit faster? Simply put, no. I do not think that the business market is open to the idea of supersonic jets. At least their wallets are not prepared.