By the late 1960s, the everyman’s vision for the future of air travel looked very different than the reality of today; and his vision was not unfounded. In July of 1969, Apollo 11 had landed two astronauts on the surface of the moon, and the Concorde 001 had completed its first successful test flight. Mankind was spreading out into the stars, and it was thought we would soon have mastery over the skies, as well.
But it was not to be. Commercial supersonic flight began in 1973 and ended in 2003, with the final flight of the joint British-French developed Concorde supersonic passenger airliner. The Concorde was a product of heavy investment on the part of the British and French governments, and the aircraft was only ever purchased by British Airways and Air France. Eventually, the Concorde was retired due to a combination of cost overruns and prohibitive regulations — the FAA banned supersonic flight over the continental United States in 1973.
When it was in service, the Concorde was the exception rather than the norm; round trip tickets cost as much as $20,000 near the end of its service, and the supersonic airliner mostly shuttled wealthy travelers to and from London and New York City. The Concorde could make the trip from London to New York City in two and a half hours, but not even the demand for such astonishing speed in crossing the Atlantic could meet the massive costs of maintenance and regulatory compliance. Cut off from the overland market in the United States and Europe, it was only a matter of time before continued operation of the Concorde became cost prohibitive.
However, all that may soon be a thing of the past. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed into law a five-year, $97 billion reauthorization of policy for the Federal Aviation Administration. The bill orders the FAA to consult with the aviation industry in the writing of a report on a new regulatory framework for supersonic flight, to be delivered to Congress in no more than one year. The current FAA ban on overland supersonic flight is an aeronautic speed limit (of no great than Mach 1) in pursuit of a noise limit. The real concern that led to the ban was not excessive speed but excessive noise, generated by the sonic boom produced by traveling at supersonic speeds. However, new advances in aircraft technology may vitiate such concerns.
The private sector has quietly made significant progress in supersonic flight since 2003. Firms like Boom Technology are in the late stages of developing aircraft that will travel at twice the speed of sound, for a quarter the price of the Concorde. By way of Bloomberg News, Boom Technologies CEO Blake Scholl says the company’s 40-seat supersonic airliner will make the trip from London to New York in three hours and twenty-five minutes, for a round trip ticket price of about $5,000. Most importantly, from a regulatory standpoint, the Boom Technology prototype is propelled by two turbofan engines that are quieter and more efficient than its Concorde ancestor — according to Boom’s website, the engines are 30-times quieter than the Concorde.
If firms like Boom can successfully lobby the FAA to change its regulatory framework to a regime concerned with noise — rather than airspeed — excesses, then in a few years we might begin to see the proliferation of second-generation supersonic airliners. And this time — with better cost control, more advanced technology, and a friendly regulatory framework — they might just be here to stay.
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