The poster child of supersonic flight, Aerion had been working on a supersonic jet for almost two decades, but ran out of cash in May | Source: Aerion

Is the Supersonic Jet the Fast Flying Future of Aviation?

When time is money, travel becomes about speed. Getting from A to B in the shortest time possible is now a matter of finding the fastest way to fly. Over the next decade, the number of new private jets taking to the skies is expected to total 7,600 – costing buyers a combined $248bn. And, while many people own fast private jets, there may be a quicker way to cross the globe – by breaking the sound barrier.

Supersonic travel is nothing new. The Concorde, a British and French turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner, took flight in 1976 carrying passengers right up until 2003. This year, however, US airline United announced to “return supersonic speeds to aviation” by the year 2029, agreeing to purchase 15 new supersonic airliners produced by American company Boom.

Named the Overture, the jet will reportedly accommodate 40 to 50 passengers and the company claims it will be the ‘fastest and most sustainable supersonic airliner.’ Does this mean supersonic jets will be the fast transportation of the future?

What is supersonic travel?

Going supersonic means travelling faster than the speed of sound. On the ground, this means exceeding approximately 1,236 km/h. For a plane at an altitude of 60,000ft, it means flying faster than 1,060km/h.

At that speed, flight time is less than half. Boom, the Denver-based company building the new supersonic aircraft the Overture, says its jet could make the trip from London to New York in 3.5 hours. That’s three hours less than a typical passenger jet cruising at around 900km/h. While it seems like a no-brainer, there are a few past issues with reaching Mach 1.

The Challenges of supersonic travel

The new generation of supersonic jetliners faces the same two major problems that plagued the Concorde – noise and pollution.

A sonic boom, the noise of a supersonic jet that breaks the sound barrier, can be heard on the ground as a loud boom. It’s where the company, Boom, got its name. The noise limits where a supersonic jet can fly. In overpopulated areas, planes must maintain a lower, quieter speed until they reach the ocean where the supersonic flight can begin.

Boom, however, is confident that its supersonic Overture plane will not be any louder than other modern passenger jets.

Another issue is sustainability. To fly supersonic aircraft needs more power and more fuel. And as the world transitions to green energy, the demand for fuel guzzling jets is likely to decrease in the coming decades.

The alternative of course is developing a sustainable private supersonic jet that doesn’t require fossil fuels. Kathy Savitt, Boom’s chief commercial officer, told the BBC she expects Overture to be operated as a “net-zero carbon aircraft”.

Although the plans are ready, is the industry at the same stage? Dr Guy Gratton, associate professor of aviation and the environment at Cranfield University, explains “the world is very far from having anything like the production capacity needed” to produce enough biofuel to power the entire aviation industry.

Commercial supersonic travel

Even after technology hindrances are solved, it still leaves the ultimate goal of any aviation company, profitability. For aircraft weight is everything. Even a slight increase in weight can add untold amounts to fuel costs. Therefore, a scaled-down cabin size to reduce outgoings will also reduce passenger-carrying capacity. This presents a challenge for any private supersonic jet company to sell enough tickets to make commercial supersonic flights viable.

According to Heritage Concorde, the Concorde earned over A$687 million for British Airways after-tax profit. However, it wasn’t until 1983, after 7 years of commercial flying, it’s believed the aircraft turned a profit. Boom, on the other hand, expects Overture to be profitable even if tickets are sold at ‘regular business-class fares.’

Private supersonic jets

There’s certainly optimism surrounding commercial supersonic airlines, but can the same be said for the private supersonic jet? With Aerion Supersonic announcing it shut down operations in May, it doesn’t look promising. The Nevada-based company planned to build the AS2 supersonic jet, a silent business jet capable of flying double the speed of commercial aircraft.

As one of the sector’s leading companies, Aerion stated that the “hugely challenging” financial environment meant it would not start production of its first supersonic jet, the AS2. The private supersonic jet was poised to be the forerunner in the private business jet market, carrying 12 passengers at over 2,000km/h.

It seems there’s no fast fix – all private supersonic jet manufacturers will be in it for the long haul.

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