Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Beyond Concorde: The next generation of supersonic flight

A rendering of the Aerion SBJ, a proposed eight to 12-passenger business jet whose backers predict it will enter service by 2020. A rendering of the Aerion SBJ, a proposed eight to 12-passenger business jet whose backers predict it will enter service by 2020.
HIDE CAPTION
Going beyond Concorde
Going beyond Concorde
Going beyond Concorde
Going beyond Concorde
Going beyond Concorde
Going beyond Concorde
Going beyond Concorde
Going beyond Concorde
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The quest continues for a next-generation supersonic aircraft
  • Aerion predicts it will have a business jet in service by about 2020
  • NASA is close to muffling the sonic boom that prevents overland supersonic flight
  • Some analysts question whether a market exists for expensive supersonic travel

(CNN) -- For more than three decades, Concorde represented the pinnacle of business travel -- the ultimate status symbol for the jetset executive.

Considered a marvel of aviation technology, the distinctive droop-nosed aircraft traveled at twice the speed of sound, flying from London to New York in about three and a half hours -- half the time of commercial airliners.

But even before an Air France Concorde crashed in 2000, killing all 100 passengers and nine crew members on board, the luster was beginning to wane.

Battling high operating costs and low passenger numbers, Air France and British Airways grounded their small, aging fleet a mere three years later.

But the dream of supersonic flight has not disappeared. Aviation manufacturers such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Aerion are working on supersonic technology -- with the latter predicting it could have a supersonic business jet in service as early as 2020.

Traveling at 'hypersonic' speeds

Industry expert Joe Lissenden, the director of aerospace and defense consulting in the Americas for IHS Jane's, says it's likely that a next-generation supersonic commercial aircraft will emerge.

High demand from passengers, historic profitability on the routes and significant technological improvements have combined to make supersonic flight all the more viable, he said.

Read also: The air fare too good to be true

For Lissenden, the one challenge that remains is fuel cost. "Faster flights consume fuel faster which makes the flight more expensive," he said. "But this is a premium route, and premium prices will be charged."

Crucial to the efforts to restore supersonic aircraft to the skies is the work of national aerospace programs such as NASA and Japan's JAXA. Peter Coen is the supersonics research project manager for NASA's fundamental aeronautics program.

While the agency is not working on a specific supersonic aircraft, he said, "we are working on technologies we feel represent barriers to bringing back successful supersonic aircraft."

Those barriers include high atmosphere emissions, noise produced when taking off and landing, and the sonic boom -- the sound associated with the shockwaves created when objects travel faster than the speed of sound, which has prevented supersonic aircraft from flying overland routes.

The boom is the barrier and if we can get past that, I think we'll see people giving supersonic flight a lot more serious consideration.
Peter Coen, supersonics research project manager, NASA fundamental aeronautics program

See also: Air Force's hypersonic test fails

Coen said his division was concentrated on addressing the sonic boom issue first, because "if you don't have overland supersonic flight, there's never going to be a market for the supersonic aircraft."

NASA has been collaborating with Boeing and Lockheed Martin on systems-level design studies, with each manufacturer producing models that have been subjected to wind tunnel testing to gauge their effectiveness.

Coen said phase one testing had successfully validated the basic design techniques. Reshaping the aircraft, the designs -- Boeing's two-jet configuration with engines mounted above the wing, and Lockheed Martin's tri-jet configuration, with two engines below the wing and a third mounted in the tail -- had been proven to significantly reduce the sonic boom to a "thump," dropping the noise from Concorde levels to close to what is considered the level of acceptability.

Coen said he expected to see a next-generation "son of Concorde" in the marketplace by around 2030, while a supersonic business jet "could happen sooner."

"The boom is the barrier and if we can get past that, I think we'll see people giving supersonic flight a lot more serious consideration," he said.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) also hopes to develop a supersonic passenger aircraft that is quiet, economical and environmentally friendly, and expects to achieved it some time this century.

Spokesman Masahisa Honda said that while the agency currently had no aircraft in specific development, along current projections it predicted a supersonic business jet to enter the market some time after 2015.

Read also: 'Hidden' airline charges -- dirty tricks or customer choice?

One of the frontrunners to do so is the Aerion SBJ, an 8-12 passenger business jet. "It will herald a return to supersonic civil flight without Concorde's environmental and economic drawbacks," said Aerion spokesman Adam Konowe.

He said development of a joint venture with aircraft manufacturers to produce the SBJ had been slowed by the recession, but once a deal was struck he anticipated a six-year development program to bring the aircraft to market. "We believe the SBJ will be certified, and enter service around the end of the decade -- 2020," he said.

Will you have enough passengers willing to pay higher fares to fly more quickly?
Chris Seymour, head of market analysis, Ascend

But not everyone is convinced that a return to supersonic passenger flight is just around the corner. Chris Seymour, head of market analysis with aviation experts Ascend, was skeptical that there would be much progress before at least 2030.

"I think there's so many issues to be considered that I certainly can't see it happening in the next 20 years," he said.

Seymour believes that although technological barriers will likely be overcome, the key factor in whether it will become a reality is whether a market exists that is prepared to pay a premium for the ultimate status symbol in business travel -- particularly in an air-travel market that is focused on low prices.

"Will you have enough passengers willing to pay higher fares to fly more quickly?" He said. "If you look at Concorde, that wasn't the case. It came along at a time when the 747 also came in, which carried more people for lower fares. That's where the market was."

Peter Warth, director of Complete Aviation Solutions, also believes that a return to supersonic flight is further off than some are making out.

"There seems to be multiple technological and commercial obstacles that will need to be cleared," he said.

But he conceded: "I'm sure that when the original plans for Concorde, the A380 and the 787 Dreamliner were announced, the same questions about whether it could be achieved were asked. But they eventually delivered. I think time will tell."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1407 GMT (2207 HKT)
Japan is set to make its mark in the skies with its first new commercial jet for over 50 years, the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, aka the MRJ.
October 4, 2014 -- Updated 0516 GMT (1316 HKT)
Think hotels are deliberately blocking your personal Wi-Fi networks so you'll buy theirs?
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
How would you like to trim three hours off the current commercial jet flight time between Paris and Washington, D.C.?
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
It's been a big week for makeovers in the world of aviation.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
Aviation isn't known as the most eco-friendly industry; running an airline produces an incredible amount of waste. But some are doing something about it.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
Airports aren't exactly stress-free zones, but drones, tracking and virtual reality could help make them better places.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 0906 GMT (1706 HKT)
In many ways, airplanes are a retailer's dream come true. They serve a captive -- often bored -- audience with a disposable income.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1835 GMT (0235 HKT)
Takeoff on one of Airbus' new A350WXB test planes is a strangely quiet experience.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
What do you pack when you travel? Take a look inside other people's luggage.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0339 GMT (1139 HKT)
Few airline routes are as cutthroat as the one between London and New York.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, the old adage goes; Airbus unveils revamped A330 airliner.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0248 GMT (1048 HKT)
Show us how you travel with twitpics and instagram via #howipack
ADVERTISEMENT