15 years after Concorde, startups aim for new era of supersonic travel

A group of companies are making an effort to reinvent supersonic travel about a decade and a half after the world’s first supersonic jet, the Concorde, made its final flight.

The final British Airways Concorde flight takes off from New York's JFK International Airport to return to London's Heathrow Airport on October 24, 2003. British Airways retired the supersonic Concorde fleet after 27 years of service. File Photo by Ezio Petersen/UPI | License Photo
The final British Airways Concorde flight takes off from New York’s JFK International Airport to return to London’s Heathrow Airport on October 24, 2003. British Airways retired the supersonic Concorde fleet after 27 years of service. File Photo by Ezio Petersen/UPI | License Photo

No commercial airline crossed the Atlantic Ocean faster than the Concorde’s Guinness World Record-setting flight from New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport to London’s Heathrow on Feb. 7, 1996. The jet completed the transatlantic trip in 2 hours 52 minutes 59 seconds, traveling at an average speed of 1,250 mph.

For comparison, a Norwegian Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner became the fastest subsonic aircraft to complete the trip in January, traveling from New York to London in 5 hours, 13 minutes and reaching a maximum speed of 776 mph.

Despite the Concorde’s dazzling speed and luxurious cabins, supersonic travel ultimately failed to find a market mainly due to government regulations over noise and skyrocketing safety costs in a post-Sept. 11 world. These factors, among others, pushed the sleek, super fast jetliner into early retirement on Nov. 26, 2003.

Dawn of supersonic travel

The Concorde was developed in a joint venture between Britain’s Bristol Aircraft and France’s Aerospatiale in the late 1950s. Both design teams were assigned to develop 110-seat long-range supersonic airliners and the projects were eventually combined into the Anglo-French Concorde, with production being split between Filton, Britain, and Toulouse, France, beginning in May 1963.

Each assembly line constructed 10 Concorde jets for a total of 20, and the first prototype made its maiden flight on March 2, 1969. The pre-production model achieved Mach 1 speed in October 1969 and reached Mach 2 a week later.

When the jet received its certificate of airworthiness, the British and French governments in 1972 went on a worldwide sales tour hoping to market supersonic travel to the masses. They returned, however, with empty sales books. Worries about the jet’s takeoff roar and its “sonic boom” scared off potential buyers.

Ultimately, the governments had two choices — sell it to national carriers British Airways and Air France, or dump the Concorde altogether. With no competition to speak of, the airlines each received 10 Concordes at a bargain. Then-British Minister of Aerospace Michael Haseltine said, “Basically, we gave it to them.”

“What they were hoping was that this would be a moderate success and get enough people of the first class and above to fly on the Concorde and then they would build a much larger [supersonic airliner] that would seat 250 people and they were hoping then the seat mile cost would go down,” Robert van der Linden, curator of air transportation at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, told UPI.

The decline

One of the overriding factors that killed first-generation supersonic flight — the cost.

It took British Airways and Air France a few years to begin turning a profit with Concorde. Eventually, though, skyrocketing costs — ushered in by the crash of an Air France Concorde in 2000 and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — caught up with the jet.

“If the thing made money it’d still be in service,” van der Linden said.

The entire fleet was grounded for a year after the 2000 crash for safety modifications. About the time Concorde was ready to relaunch, terrorists flew airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. That hit was twofold, as it increased security costs and killed dozens of the Concorde’s most frequent flyers in Manhattan. The aircraft was never able to fully recover.

Van der Linden took part in one of the last Concorde flights, from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport to Washington Dulles International Airport on an extravagant 3 hour and 49 minute flight.

He described being impressed by how smoothly the plane traveled even as it reached 1,350 mph, as well as the luxurious meal and attentive service, but concluded the $6,000 cost for a one-way ticket would likely mean an aircraft like the Concorde would never take flight again.

The high costs in relation to the number of passengers the Concorde was able to carry priced the average consumer out of the market — and over time, interest among government and business travelers began to decline.

“Even the wealthy weren’t all that willing to pay $6,000 for a one-way ticket when you can pay half that to sit up front in a 747 in extreme comfort and go to sleep and when you wake up you’re where you need to be,” Van der Linden said.

Another problem — routes. Governments banned Concorde from flying over land due to the double-bang, or “sonic boom,” it creates when breaking the sound barrier. That meant the jet could only travel to points linked by water, nearly halving the number of destinations and shutting out potentially lucrative routes.

Resurgence

Fifteen years after the final Concorde flight, new technology and changes in regulations have some groups eyeing a comeback for supersonic travel.

On May 22, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it is crafting a regulation “to accommodate noise certification of new supersonic aircraft” and expects to have a formal proposal prepared in December.

The rule would seek to update noise standards in U.S. regulations, which currently apply only to the Concorde.

In April, NASA awarded Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. a $247.5 million contract to build and test a quieter supersonic aircraft known as the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration X-plane.

The X-plane is expected to cruise at an altitude of 55,000 feet and a speed of roughly 940 mph and will produce a “thump” comparable to the sound of a car door closing rather than a sonic boom.

NASA plans to conduct a series of tests of the “soft thump” technology in Galveston, Texas beginning in November, which could provide a step toward bringing supersonic flight back to the forefront.

“This ‘X-plane’ would open a new market for U.S. companies to build faster commercial airliners, creating jobs and cutting cross-country flight times in half,” the White House’s budget for fiscal year 2019 states.

Aerion Supersonic

 
Photo courtesy Aerion Supersonic
California-based startup Aerion Supersonic is aiming to be the first of the latest wave of supersonic jets to make it on the market, with plans to fly its AS2 business jet in 2023 and get certification in 2025.

Aerion has placed its focus on catering to business travelers with a 12-seat jet capable of flying up to Mach 1.2 speed without a boom reaching the ground.

“We are entering the market with proven technologies and experienced partners,” CEO Brian Barents told UPI.

Barents said General Electric has agreed to supply Aerion with a variant of a popular and commonly used jet engine, adapted for supersonic flight. The company has been working with Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works advanced design organization to develop the jet since December. The company has also partnered with NASA to develop supersonic natural laminar flow technology that will reduce drag and fuel consumption.

“Our AS2 has a modern engine design to minimize emissions and noise on takeoff and landing,” Barents added.

Aerion has sold 20 aircraft to fractional jet travel provider Flexjet and projects a market for 300 AS2s in the first 10 years of its production.

Spike Aerospace
Photo courtesy Spike Aerospace
Aerion’s closest competitor is Spike Aerospace, which plans to deliver its 18-seat S-512 jet by 2023.

Based in Boston, Spike Aerospace boasts capability to achieve Quiet Supersonic Flight at Mach 1.6 speeds, producing a sonic signature expected to be less than 75 PLdb at ground level.

“Reducing the noise created by supersonic flight has been a primary focus at Spike Aerospace, and the resulting development of the S-512 represents a significant achievement thanks to our ongoing engineering efforts,” the company said.

CEO Vik Kachoria told Business Insider the jet uses a “cranked delta wing” shape, resembling the Concorde with a lower portion of its wings removed.

“Engineering tools that weren’t available when the Concorde was designed now enable us to really look at the aircraft and optimize it in a number of ways that make it more fuel efficient, make it quieter when it’s flying — reduce that sonic boom — and provide a better experience for the passengers,” said Kachoria.

Spike also seeks to set itself apart with its multiplex digital cabin, which replaces windows with high-definition screens along the length of the aircraft that can project movies, images, presentations or a real-time look at the outside world.

Boom Supersonic
Photo courtesy Boom Supersonic
Colorado startup Boom Supersonic is seeking to create the supersonic transport most resembling the Concorde, with its 55-seat airliner.

Boom has placed its focus on offering business class travel to a wider clientele base in a larger aircraft capable of Mach 2.2 speeds.

Last month, Chinese travel service provider Ctrip reached a deal with Boom to provide its knowledge of the Chinese aviation market to help Boom accelerate its partnership efforts with airlines in China in exchange for 10 to 15 seats on its first several supersonic commercial flights.

“Ctrip offers valuable expertise in the Chinese travel market, and we’re excited to work with their passionate, entrepreneurial team to bring supersonic travel to the region,” Boom CEO Blake Scholl said.

The company has more than 75 pre-orders for its aircraft, including 10 from the Virgin Group and 20 from Japan Airlines, which also invested $10 million in the company.

“We’re thrilled to be working with JAL to develop a reliable, easily maintained aircraft that will provide revolutionary speed to passengers. Our goal is to develop an airliner that will be a great addition to any international airline’s fleet,” Scholl said.

By Daniel Uria