Perspective, people, perspective.
We’ve all heard the expression Speed Kills. Usually attributed to the speed limit, statistics show that the faster the speed limit, the higher the fatality rate is. Police install speed cameras designed to snare errant drivers, who are educated to observe the speed limit. This concept of conserving speed when in a moving vehicle appears to make perfect sense.
In other instances, faster speed is beneficial. Over the last quarter century, athletes run faster, cameras have swifter shutters and computers are quicker. Most people are hard-pressed to come up with an object or a device that has not been engineered to move quicker.
That’s what technology does; it finds a way to increase, when necessary, both average and tangential speed.
Trans World Airlines, TWA flew nonstop from Tel Aviv to JFK in a Boeing 747. Flight time was a taut twelve hours and fifteen minutes. Nearly 30 years later, El Al flies a similar plane on the identical route. Guess what – the flying time is the same. How could that be? Most everything else over the past 30 years goes faster.
While Superman is able to leap tall buildings and fly faster than a speeding bullet, the airline industry remains with technology from the last century.
The future appears brighter, though. All clouds have a silver lining and the airline industry may find its day in the sun. Quick query what happens when you combine a Rocky Mountain High with a Virgin? A bit of perspective first. It is rare for something to exist as a notable, celebrated slice of the past, and as an almost inevitable part of the future, yet be absent in the present. Supersonic flight is just such a shape-shifter.
It floats in the general consciousness as a ghost of journeys of yesterday, its glamour wrapped up in Concorde’s broad wingspan. It gleams tantalizingly on the horizon as a symbol of a tomorrow where we all zoom across the planet at immense speeds.
Supersonic flight has existed for over half a century.
The problem is, it hasn’t been affordable for routine travel. Older readers will remember the short golden age of supersonic travel when a British-French consortium built a supersonic passenger jet airliner. It had a maximum speed over twice the speed of sound with seating up to 128 passengers. It started flying commercially through British Airways and Air France in 1976 and continued flying for the next 27 years until 2003, when the fleet was permanently grounded.
The aircraft was primarily used by wealthy passengers who could afford to pay a steep price in exchange for Concorde’s speed. Scheduled flights were from London’s Heathrow Airport and Paris’s Charles De Gaulle airport to JFK in New York and Dulles airport in Washington D.C. The design of the plane was revolutionary.
Its double-winged body with four engines had no tail and was powered with a state-of-the-art avionics system.
Initially the British/French consortium had dozens of orders from the world’s airlines for the plane. Then they all were canceled. While Concorde originally held a great deal of customer interest, the cancellations accelerated when the only competing supersonic plane, a Soviet Tupolev crashed at the Paris Air Show.
This shocked potential buyers and in the mid 1970s, public concern over environmental issues presented by a supersonic aircraft-the sonic boom, had produced a shift in public opinion.
The United States, which had been working with Boeing to develop a US supersonic plane, canceled its program. Curiously, the US government then enacted legislation banning Concorde flights over land on grounds of noise pollution. Reeking of narrow protectionism, it meant Concorde was left with only two airlines operating the plane. Sadly both BA and Air France would lose millions operating the plane and advances in creature comforts soon made the plane woefully outdated.
When an Air France Concorde crashed in 2000, killing all 100 passengers and the nine crew members, the writing was on the wall. No matter that the cause of the crash was a punctured tire caused by debris from another airplane on the take-off. As the Concorde accelerated into the skies, the tire exploded and a piece of rubber hit the fuel tank, which caused a fuel leak and led to a fire. Unable to gain enough altitude or speed, the aircraft went into a violent descent before crashing. It simply reinforced the public’s view that the Concorde was no longer safe to fly, and even after modifications were made, there was a paucity of paying passengers on the planes. The final Concorde commercial flight was in November of 2003. Since then, very little chatter of upending the airline industry has been heard.
However, a new generation of ultrafast jetliners will kick off the next age of supersonic passenger flights.
The arrangement between Denver-based Boom Technology and the founder of Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard Branson means that the second era of travel greater than the speed of sound is closer.
Boom CEO Blake Scholl reports that the company is developing a 45-seat airline that will cruise at Mach 2.2, twice as fast as conventional airlines. His rational for such a small plane resulted in his reviewing Concorde’s financial numbers. The major problem with Concorde was it had far more seats than could be filled at the required prices. If he has his way, the New York to London flight will be made in less than four hours. A trip from Sydney to London will take 8 hours. Supersonic aircraft will fly higher than other aircraft, up to 60,000 feet. At that altitude, you fly above most of the turbulence, allowing a smoother ride. Breaking through the “sound barrier” is inaudible; you simply won’t notice it. On the Concorde, announcements were made and champagne was served to celebrate the moment that otherwise would have been overlooked.
Boom grew out of Scholl’s realization that the Concorde could have thrived with a mere 30% increase in efficiency and Richard Branson is putting in money to make it happen. The company has already taken orders for 25 aircraft; 10 alone for Virgin. Branson has communicated that his Virgin Group will lend the expertise it has garnered in its attempts to create a commercial spacecraft to the Boom project.
The prototype has the sleek design of the Concorde, all pointed nose and smooth sides. Like the Concorde, Boom’s jetliner offers only premium-class seats from which conventional airlines generate more than half their revenue and puts them on a three-engine supersonic plane. Their marketing plan has ticketing prices nearly in line with those for business class seats, which should prove quite competitive.
So is this the beginning of something special? Possibly.
Supersonic travel has been the big travel question ever since Concorde touched down for the final time in 2003, taking with it a pace and style of aviation that had become too expensive to sustain. Fuel costs, a fading safety record, an aging fleet and a price tag that left an icon of the heavens beyond the reach of the average passenger all combined to consign the Concorde to museums.
There also remains the noise pollution issue, and the Boom jet is designed to produce a much quieter “boom” than the Concorde. There are many common misconceptions about the sonic boom. Other noises, such as thunder, are louder than sonic booms and do not break windows or cause hearing damage.
Unfortunately, supersonic flight is still banned over the United States. Perhaps the fact that an American company is involved will help reverse the ban. The Boom jet, designed to be operational in less than five years, will be flying primarily over water – such as New York to London. Boom is optimistic that their first test flight will take place later this year so they can begin the process of certification as a passenger airliner.
Boom isn’t the only aerospace company looking to reintroduce supersonic passenger flight. Boeing and Gulfstream are quietly dabbling in supersonic aircraft designs. The return of supersonic jet travel would be transformative, opening up far-flung destinations to new source markets. While the first flights will be on the busy transatlantic routes, look to the trans-Pacific routes to be key to a deeper long-lasting commercial success. Boom is the first company to have orders placed, but NASA is working on supersonic prototypes that could fly even faster.
There are many unanswered questions surrounding the potential return of supersonic flight, particularly in light of stringent noise and emission regulations. One saving grace may be President-elect Donald Trump’s taste for private jets. Perhaps a supersonic version of Air Force One would be his way of showing that America still leads the world in advanced technologies. The image of a futuristic supersonic jet landing at world summits would certainly be the modern equivalent of the building of a Trump Tower.
The writer is CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments, email him at [email protected]