How Far Are We From a Supersonic Air Travel Future?

By Nicholas Fearn on at

Unless you can afford your own private jet to travel the skies in luxury, or a pricey business class ticket, the experience of taking a flight can be a stressful, uncomfortable one. Bad food. Screaming babies. No leg room. It's a chore only amplified during long haul flights, when terra firma could be the best part of a day away.

Well, give it a few decades, and things could be very different when it comes to aviation. You could well get on a plane in London and be in locations like America or Australia within just a few hours - or *whisper it*, even minutes.

It all sounds very far-fetched, but many technologists believe that we’re rapidly approaching a supersonic air travel reality, where there the phrase “long-haul flight” will no longer hold any meaning.

Concorde Flop

But, of course, while these claims all sound amazing and groundbreaking, it’s not like we’ve seen a positive history for superfast aircraft historically. For example, Concorde, which burst onto scene in the early 70s, was groundbreaking for its time but would flop decades later.

Championed by leading airliners British Airways and Air France, the turbojet-powered supersonic aircraft would completely change the game for aviation. With a maximum speed higher than the speed of sound – around 1,354 mph at cruise altitude – it’d be able to get you to anywhere you want in no time at all. Whereas a standard subsonic UK-to-New York flight would take between seven and eight hours, Concorde could manage the same trip in three and a half hours, literally twice as fast in ideal conditions.

However, facing technical difficulties and criticism for being increasingly uneconomical, the aircraft was retired in 2003, helped along the path to termination by the tragic Air France Flight 4590 crash. The fact is, the aircraft was only suited towards people who could pay for the premium (seats often cost five times as much as their subsonic equivalents), rather than the everyday consumer, and that had an effect on mass adoption. As a result, we’ve not seen a successor launched since.

Supersonic Planes, or “Vanity Projects”?

Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research, believes that Concorde was nothing more than a vanity project designed so the UK could prove technological and engineering muscle. As a result of the failures of the project, Ahmad doubts that banks would fund supersonic aircraft again - putting the future of the area in doubt.

“Concorde, like the A380, was nothing more than a bragging rights exercise to "get one over" on the USA. As it was, the 747 changed the way we fly and the oil price disasters of the late 1970s and early 1980s ensured that Concorde remained one of the biggest commercial aerospace industrial and financial disasters for almost 30 years,” he says.

“And therein lies the problem. While everything exists from a technology standpoint to recreate a fast airplane family, the problem is the cost, who absorbs it and will buyers buy it. As it stands, those vectors have not met to create an axis point at which a manufacturer could step up to the plate and commit.

“To that end, while as glamorous as Concorde was with all its nostalgia, financiers and bankers will not squander money on another vanity project like this again. And quite rightly so.”

Making Sustainable Supersonic Planes

Past challenges aside, Boom is an American tech start-up that wants to deliver that supersonic reality, building on the technological success of Concorde. In particular, it’s working on a supersonic plane (the concept render for which can be found at the top of this post) that goes 2.2x faster than the speed of sound. According to the company, it’d be able to get passengers from New York to London in 2.5 hours, SF to Tokyo in 4.5 and LA to Sydney in 9. In other words, it’s pretty damn fast.

While Boom is still in the early days, it plans to fly its first working prototype in late 2017. What’s more, customers have already reserved 25 of the planes - including Virgin Group. It’s pledged to purchase 10 planes in a deal valued at $2 billion. 15 more have been optioned by an unnamed European carrier, valued up to $5 billion.

Blake Scholl, founder and CEO of Boom Technology, says that a lot has happened since Concorde was designed and retired. New technologies have become available that make safe, sustainable supersonic travel possible. His company’s goal, he explains, is to make high-speed travel affordable for everyone.

“50 years after Concorde was designed, advanced aerodynamics, efficient engines, and new materials finally enable safe and affordable supersonic flight. Our ultimate vision is affordable high­speed travel for everyone—think anywhere in the world in 5 hours for $100. We’re starting with a Mach 2.2 (1,451mph) supersonic airliner—with seats that cost the same as a lay­flat bed in business class,” he says.

“Imagine New York to London in less than 3.5 hours, just $5,000 round trip. We are moving quickly—already, 25 airplanes have been reserved, including 10 for Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Our first prototype will fly next year (late 2017).”

The Sonic Boom Problem and Fixing It

As well as being expensive to run, Concorde was also pretty noisy. The plane would often exceed accepted noise levels, causing havoc for people living near its flightpath. So if we were to see another mainstream supersonic plane, it’d almost certainly have to be quieter.

In February, American space agency NASA awarded Lockheed Martin Aeronautics with a $20 million contract to finalise designs of a quieter supersonic passenger jet. It’s the first model in a range of X-Planes included in the New Aviation Horizons, which is a major part of NASA’s fiscal year 2017 budget.

The plane, NASA envisions, will travel faster and sport an aviation system that makes flight greener, safer and quieter. When in flight, as opposed to creating noisy sonic booms, it’ll emit a so-called supersonic heartbeat, or a low-boom. In other words, it won’t make a racket in the skies. It could be flying as early as 2020.

Speaking exclusively to Gizmodo UK, Peter Coen, supersonic technology project manager at NASA, says the agency’s focus in recent years has been on reducing the loud boom associated with supersonic aircraft. This, he says, is currently a barrier to the market growing and supersonic aircraft being used in commercial scenarios.

He says: “NASA's focus in recent years has been more on reducing the awful “Boom-Boom” normally associated with supersonic aircraft and replacing it with more of a thump-thump – a sort of supersonic heartbeat - because we feel that’s the key barrier to opening the market and allowing jets to fly at supersonic speed over land. With the help of industry we have developed technology that can change the nature of sonic booms quite significantly."

Once the plane has been designed, NASA will show the world that the technology actually works, and if it receives more funding, it’ll be able to test fly the plane. Coen explains: “The next steps are to demonstrate this technology in flight, not only to make sure it works, but to get community response data to help regulators develop a noise standard for overland flight.

“This aircraft, in the tradition of X-planes, is smaller than a future supersonic airliner to minimise cost. It will be designed to mimic the “sonic thump” of those aircraft, which essentially sets the shape of the aircraft. As part of this effort, we’ll do analysis and wind tunnel testing to verify the performance.

“We should be through with that by the middle of 2017. Then, assuming further funding is okayed, the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate would award another contract, which would be the final design and the fabrication phase. I like to say we’re looking forward to a first flight at the end of 2019, early 2020. And by 2021, we would be conducting our first community overflight testing.”

"The Son of Concorde"

Although supersonic planes and technologies are still being developed and may be a long way from mainstream reality, that’s not to say people aren’t getting excited already. Despite problems with Concorde, many in the industry see supersonic travel as the next big thing for aviation.

Alex Macheras, an aviation analyst, is one of those people. He tells us: “Supersonic travel in the commercial aviation industry is definitely something that’s already being developed ‘behind the scenes’ – not only is it being labelled as the ‘next huge milestone’ the aviation industry can expect, but it’s inspiring smaller startup businesses like ‘Boom’.

“In addition to this, we know that leading aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus have already filed patents for what could be ‘the son of Concorde’ – an aircraft that could fly from London to New York in as little as one hour.

“Such examples of supersonic travel in the making would not only open up the possibility of very short transatlantic flight times, but it opens up the prospect of a whole new market. Suddenly, we would be able to have a full day of meetings in London but be back in New York City in time for dinner.”

The Other Technologies Worth Getting Excited About

David Lackner, head of research and technology for North America at Airbus, says that while companies are looking into supersonic aircraft, there are other innovations that can revolutionise aviation. He explains that Airbus is looking into all areas and is committed to finding solutions that improve flight experiences.

A render of the Airbus E-Fan 4.0

He says: “It is certainly something that a lot of companies and agencies are currently looking into. Airbus has a deep legacy of innovation in flight – and this includes our work in the 1970’s/80’s on supersonic commercial aircraft.

“As we look forward, we are committed to advancing the state of the art for both efficient operations, and passenger comfort. As such, we are not limiting our scope to supersonic aircraft, but are also exploring several exciting innovations.

“For example, our work on the E-Fan - an electric-powered aircraft -made history in flying across the English Channel last summer, the first such aircraft to accomplish this feat. Also we are working on the Perlan Mission II glider, a stratospheric glider capable of soaring to 90,000 feet - without an engine.”

Supersonic travel remains an exciting topic for the technology and aviation industries, and over the next few years, it’s likely we’ll see more companies dipping their toes into the marvels of superfast planes. Whether or not we’ll get to travel like super heroes any time soon is another matter. We've done it before and, if the enthusiasm of those currently working on supersonic projects is anything to go by, we'll reach those speeds again.