Traveling at supersonic speeds: ambition and obstacles

Traveling at supersonic speeds: ambition and obstacles

Nearly 20 years ago, with the last time British Airways flew its supersonic Concorde, the era of traveling between New York and London in less than four hours of great food and drink seemed to be over forever. But now aircraft manufacturers and airlines are trying to revive that dream, pouring millions of dollars into companies that say they are producing better, cleaner and cheaper aircraft that can travel supersonic distances.

They hope to achieve success by 2029, when travelers can travel between New York and London in business class in just over three hours, for five to ten thousand dollars for a return ticket. But the race comes at a critical juncture. Revenues for airlines have fallen due to the Corona virus pandemic, which has pressured companies to find other sources of revenue as they recover slowly.

As climate change accelerates, carriers face pressure to expand their operations while keeping carbon emissions to a minimum. But there are still technical challenges. Critics have said that aircraft engine technology, noise regulations and the lack of clean and alternative aircraft fuel will make it difficult for airlines to obtain government approvals for aircraft, while lowering ticket prices.

They added that the companies’ bold claims to bring back the supersonic voyage will face scientific challenges for years to come. Supersonic air travel has captured the imagination of pilots for decades. In 1947, U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly at supersonic speeds, inspiring commercial airlines to follow suit.

In 1962, the British and French governments signed an agreement to develop a supersonic jet aircraft, called the Concorde. In 1976, Concorde made its commercial debut with British Airways and Air France. Over the next two decades, the aircraft evolved into a symbol of the luxury of life. The menu included champagne, caviar, lobster and lamb. Hollywood celebrities, athletes and businessmen were photographed on board.

The plane was flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet and transported passengers from New York to London in just three hours, reducing travel time by almost half. Despite the pomp and speed, the plane was surrounded by major problems. It was causing a lot of noise that prevented companies from operating flights other than over water.

The plane consumed large amounts of fuel, which led to high costs, and the price of a round-trip ticket between New York and London reached $ 12,000 in the early 1990s. The loud engine noise of the plane angered residents airports from which Concorde aircraft take off or land.

In 2000, an Air France Concorde caught fire, crashing into a hotel shortly after take-off and killing 113 people, causing a problem when talking about this aircraft that was difficult to recover. And Ian Boyd, professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Colorado, confirms that the aircraft was expensive to operate and its size was too large to be economically viable, and then there was an accident, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Since the last Concorde passenger flight in 2003, little effort has been made to revive service. Over the past decade, many start-up businesses have emerged promising a better and less expensive supersonic aircraft for commercial air travel. Recently, Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier tested a smaller private hypersonic aircraft. The aircraft is called Global 8000 and costs $ 78 million.

Blake Schole, CEO of Boom Technology, a Denver-based company founded in 2016, said his company hopes to produce a supersonic aircraft, called the Overture, and launch it by 2029. Later this year, the company will launch a manufacturing plant in south carolina. Scholl added that his company plane, which can accommodate between 65 and 88 passengers and fly at just under twice the speed of sound, would cost airlines $ 200 million per plane.

He said United Airlines has confirmed the order for 15 aircraft and the order could be increased to another 35 aircraft. Scholl added that Japan Airlines has announced its desire to purchase up to 20 aircraft. He went on to say that the company would not repeat Concorde’s failures for a variety of reasons. Carbon fiber technology has improved since the 1960s, allowing the Aviator to be lighter and more fuel efficient than the Concorde. And the software was improved, allowing his team to build a more aerodynamic aircraft.

His company plans to use sustainable aviation fuel, an alternative fuel derived from plant waste and other organic materials, making Boom Technology more environmentally friendly. Scholl points out that all of these combined developments mean that the Office One aircraft will be profitable for airlines. Mike Liskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures, says his company’s supersonic travel bet will satisfy customers’ demand for high-speed business flights. The company plans to fly most of the planes on the routes from Newark International Airport (New York) to London by the end of the decade, with possible flights to Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

Liskinen added that his company will configure the aircraft to accommodate about 80 passengers in business-class seats, similar to those on the longest domestic flights from New York to Los Angeles. The price of a ticket can approximate the cost of the current business class fare, which ranges from five to ten thousand dollars for a round trip. Liskinen claims that the combination of technology “allows us to do something economical and profitable that was not as economical and profitable in the old technology.”

But some scientists and aeronautical engineers are skeptical about this, noting that the claims of aircraft and airline manufacturers seem promising but difficult to achieve. Boyd, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado, expects noise to be the biggest challenge. He points out that sound booms may be less important because of the advances NASA has made in silence, but that planes can only fly at full speed over water, making supersonic travel between cities in the United States difficult. United.

He believes it will also be difficult to meet the requirements of FAA laws and international noise regulations. Experts said it would be difficult to reduce the noise of supersonic jets to meet government demands. Boyd added that public discussions about aircraft noise also touch on political issues.

“The annoyance and anxiety of very noisy planes serving only a relatively small number of rich people does not seem to be a good thing,” he said. But Aubrey Scanlan, a spokeswoman for Boom Technology, said she was confident the offshore aircraft would meet FAA noise regulations. But Dan Rutherford, director of aviation program at the International Council on Clean Transport, believes the cost of fuel will make supersonic air travel difficult.

He noted that supersonic aircraft consume seven to nine times more fuel than normal “non-sonic” aircraft. Rutherford added that companies are aware of this and are committed to using sustainable aviation fuels. But the supply of stable fuel is limited and the cost is two to five times higher than that of aircraft fossil fuel. It is believed that this is crucial.

* Journalist specializing in technology issues.

Published by special agreement with the Washington Post and Bloomberg News Service.

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