Supersonic dream alive

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June 18, 2016

While America’s government aeronautical agency NASA works on a Son of Concorde to overcome fast flight’s technological hurdles, a new American consortium is aiming to leapfrog other private developers and be first into the air with a new prototype promising affordable supersonic travel for the first time.

With the backing of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space travel venture, America’s Boom Aviation plans to fly a scale model of its 40-seat supersonic transport (SST) in 2017 in preparation for an entry into commercial service by a full-scale model in the early 2020s.

“We have the simplest product we can bring to market quickly,” Boom’s founder, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Blake Scholl told AirlineRatings.com from the company’s hanger in Denver, Colorado.

“This whole program is geared around how do we make the problem as simple as it can be so we can get faster airplanes in people’s hands as soon as possible.”

The Boom project is so pragmatic it doesn’t require a change in regulation – some say overregulation – that has banned supersonic flight over land for more than 40 years, following the emotive campaign by environmentalists against the Concorde in the 1970s.

Its revolutionary pitch is to promise supersonic flight at existing business class fares – a quarter of what Concorde was charging before it was grounded in 2002.

The Boom SST capitalises on advances in engines and construction materials since Concorde was designed 50 years ago that will enable huge savings in fuel consumption, flying at Mach 2.2 (about 2335 kmh), 10 per cent faster than Concorde.

It also doesn’t try to significantly extend Concorde’s flying range, which would balloon the SST’s projected $US200 million purchase price and the fares that an operator would have to charge.

Twenty seven years of Concorde….

That means longer trans-oceanic routes across the Pacific would require a Formula One-style pit stop for fuel to offer total trip times around half current subsonic times – six to eight hours from Sydney to Los Angeles, for example, instead of the current 14 hours.

“The flight-time savings are enormous,” says Scholl. “If you go (from the US West Coast) to Tokyo, for example, with the stop included it’s about 4.7 hours, where today it’s 11 hours subsonic. It’s a huge speed-up.

“We looked at what the aircraft would look like if we went for trans-Pacific non-stop and it becomes a much larger aircraft. It’s no longer 40 seats. It’s probably 60 or 80 and it’s much harder to get to the economics to let you price it for a large market. 

Concorde had “two really basic problems”, Scholl explains.  “One was the fuel economy was really horrible and that pushed the prices (fares) up. And, two, with 100 seats in the airplane, the prices you had to charge (were high). So the whole thing never found a market.”

At current business class fare levels being promised by Boom – typically $US5000 one way from Sydney to Los Angeles – there is indeed a huge existing market.

“If you look at long-haul business class there at 20 milllion passengers  a year who fly on routes that are mostly over-water trans-Pacific, trans-Atlantic. Plus Hong Kong to Sydney is a viable route,” Scholl says. “All of which is a huge market – big enough to justify the airplane. 

“And then, when the rules get fixed so we can do supersonic over land – this is really more about regulation than it is about technology – the market is three or four times larger. 

“But our philosophy as a company is to be very conservative – very conservative in technology and markets. We’re not assuming any market growth. We’re not assuming any price premium on supersonic. We’re not assuming any regulatory change.”

In fact, regulation is a huge sore point among technologists as the overland flying ban that  killed off Concorde if anything has become worse. The US Federal Aviation Administration revealed in a public statement in 2008 that – worse than the restrictive standards of the 1970s – the US now has no supersonic noise standards at all.

“Noise standards for supersonic operation will be developed as the unique operational flight characteristics of supersonic designs become known and the noise impacts of supersonic flight are shown to be acceptable,” the FAA said in the statement.
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“That’s the catch,” say George Mason University technology academics Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond in a June 2016 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “Without an official noise standard, how are America’s aviation companies to know what counts as acceptable? 

No company, they say, is going to spend millions of dollars producing a quiet supersonic aircraft behind “a veil of ignorance, only to discover later that the FAA does not find it to be quiet enough”.

“A supersonic noise standard is the only way to create the policy certainty companies need to raise capital and design quiet supersonic aircraft to specification,” they argue. 

“More vague statements and delays will push the development of affordable supersonic transport even further out into the future – a future that seemed just around the corner over half a century ago.”

Dourado and Hammond point out it was only after the 1970s anti-Concorde campaign panicked government into restricting supersonic flight that key allegations of the environmentalist lobby were debunked.

“The Concorde was not, in fact, noisier than conventional jets upon takeoff,” they write, recalling one of environmentalists’ more emotive rallying cries. “And while a sonic boom near the ground can in theory cause structural damage, it was not an issue at the Concorde’s 60,000-feet cruising altitude.”

The longer the delay in developing a successor to Concorde, the more pressure there will be for technological solutions to the tyranny of distance.
However, the airline industry’s rejection of technology that would increase the retail price of travel means that price-conscious entrepreneurs like Blake Scholl are in the box seat. 

“The world is hungry for something like this,” he says. “The world is hungry for innovation in travel. The only innovation we’ve had in the past 20 years (of air travel) is mood lighting. We haven’t gone faster for 50 years – not in  a way that a lot of people can afford. 

“I started this company because I never got to fly on Concorde. Even if I could have flown, I couldn’t have flown routinely. And that’s what I want to bring to the world. 

“People forget what happens when you make the world a smaller place and how it changes business relationships, how it changes personal relationships.” 

Americans today who might holiday in Hawaii would, with a supersonic travel option, suddenly find it practical to vacation in Australia, Scholl says. “It’s hard to predict ahead of time how that would change the world,” he says, “but we know for sure that it will.”