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Unfolding the Glamorous Supersonic Transport Wrap

Behind the promising venture, there are downsides to the Concorde successor.

Artist illustration on the claimed ‘next generation’ supersonic aircraft. Image from Boom Supersonic.

It is not difficult to imagine the possibility of traveling by air with speed faster than the speed of sound as said aircraft has been in the air transport scene for quite some time but unfortunately has become a thing of the past. Now, several years later, the idea of supersonic passenger jets started to gain interest when United Airlines and Boom Supersonic announced the birth of the ‘future of air transport’, the Overture.

With high traveling speed, the transatlantic and transpacific services can be cut short tremendously and save non-leisure oriented people times, but not the balance in the account.

Traveling time can be cut to almost half. San Francisco to Tokyo can be taken in under 6 hours, as claimed by the jet manufacturer. It is excellent for business travelers to maximize ground time and working hours before shooting back home.

As good as it sounds, it draws quite a lot of setbacks never mind the benefits to the community along with the huge capital required to operate the jet. Sure, comparing the Concorde era for this future supersonic aircraft is like apples and oranges with different technologies, strategies, target markets, but the question remains the same.

Does the future hold on to the much more efficient subsonic aircraft or the fighter jet-speed commercial jet?

Unfortunately, it brings more harm than good. These examples below are what or may hurdle the development of supersonic jet.

1. Limited Market

The demand for the supersonic jet is certainly there otherwise Boom Supersonic will not even be discussing it. A product needs to be in the market first to stimulate demand, but supersonic aircraft is a whole different story. Even if it did, the market is much more limited.

Low-cost carrier or LCC absolutely will not operate these type of aircraft as the cost rise beyond the imaginable. That is why airlines that have operated supersonic aircraft went for the premium, not the volume. Speaking of ticket prices and capacity, only a handful of city pairs could sustain such expensive tickets; West Coast of North America to Asia and US East Coast to Europe. That’s about it.

Why not from Europe to Asia? Well, supersonic aircraft are prohibited to flew over the land as it creates a sonic boom.

The FAA’s existing restrictions can be found at 14 CFR Part 91.817. In essence, that regulation prohibits anyone from operating a civil aircraft at a true flight Mach number greater than 1 over land in the United States and from a certain distance off shore where a boom could reach U.S. shores.

The already small market becomes even more niche when taking around the challenge. To make it worse, many companies post-pandemic could limit their staff for taking a pricey ticket for an overseas flight to minimize spending.

2) Cost

COST. That is the word the airline's board of directors most worshipped. Even in this multi-billion industry, expenditure remains the main hurdle. Managing an airline is indeed taking a huge capital risk. Airlines continue to improve spending by having the best economic and efficient fleet of aircraft, pressing the manufactures to scramble their head in maximizing the current aircraft construction for better fuel economy by introducing newer and improved technology or software to be fitted.

These are contradicting to what the supersonic aircraft could offer. Flying at such a speed consumes a relatively higher fuel flow during takeoff and cruising. Significant percentages of airlines’ capital expenditure are on fuel alone which ultimately doesn’t make economic sense.

Furthermore, the lease rate and maintenance cost for such a high-tech and niche aircraft certainly shoot the price up. Even the Airbus A380 has impinged airlines for having such higher operating costs.

Other consisting factors would be the future second-hand usage, freighter conversion, and global recession. It all adds up to the uncertainty and scares many airlines and lessors from investing in supersonic aircraft due to the cost.

3) Regulatory hurdle

The challenge to fly higher than the speed of sound lies on regional and international authorities to approve the jet to cruise along on their respective airspace. The aircraft can fly within the airspace but not, well, supersonically. Why such a standard?

Physic teaches us aircraft that fly at such speed will break the sound barrier. When an aircraft approaches or reaches the speed of sound, shockwaves will form on the wing and at the edges. The higher the speed, the shockwaves will be more intense. Because of these waves, a sonic boom will be heard from the ground as a sudden loud noise as a bomb exploded. As a result, it is prohibited to fly at supersonic speed above the land.

It is clear that the aircraft is permitted to fly at high speed only when crossing the ocean. Nevertheless, researches are ongoing to eliminate the shockwave from a supersonic jet that could ease the regulation imposed on these aircraft types. One that stands out is Nasa’s very own X-59 Low boom supersonic jet.

Illustration of NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology experimental aircraft, ultimately for preventing a sonic boom from hitting communities on the ground. Credits to NASA and Lockheed Martin.
  • Fun fact; noise certificate on how much the aircraft makes during approach, landing, and take-off is required to be on board; or it is forbidden from taking off as it is one of many documents needed to carry inside the aircraft on every flight.
  • Fun fact 2; some airports like London Heathrow impose a more expensive fee on airlines that use a noisier airliner.

4) Fight for SAF

As been highlighted before, fuel remains the highest cost, not just from operating this aircraft but also on the most advance and fuel-efficient kind as well. To add fuel to the fire(from the context of cost), Boom Supersonic is targeting the usage of sustainable aviation fuel or SAF.

By the time it is ready for take-off, most airlines have purchased the bulk of those fuels for their commitment to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Demand that exceeds supply will keep the price high to what already premium price tag on synthetic fuel and biofuel.

Why SAF? The world is racing against time to reduce its carbon footprint. Although it is good news for the firm to use it, the aircraft are taking a large chunk of the quantity compared to commercial transport aircraft by threefold. That is massive. As per the International Council of Clean Transport (ICCT);

On average, the modeled SST was estimated to burn 5 to 7 times as much fuel per passenger as subsonic aircraft on representative routes.

Supersonic Transport or SST heavily consumes a large quantity of fuel for a given route compared to their subsonic counterpart by 3–9 folds. Image by ICCT.

For a fairly new fuel technology with limited supply and a huge quantity usage, I’d say it’s quite selfish for them if they have the green light to do so.

This chart shows that United’s 15 ordered SST could consume the entire EU supply of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Image by ICCT.

Nevertheless, it is not wrong to try and apply new technology for improvement but the extra necessity for supersonic must come with additional strategies to compensate for the unfairness imposed on commercial aircraft.

SST Dreaming

The supersonic bet unfolds the conservative airline businesses that are heavily focused on fuel and cost-effectiveness into a more dynamic future of speed and increase consumers’ time efficiency on top of a globalize and grand image of the airlines themselves.

Should the dream materialize, the aircraft should convince passengers to migrate into a supersonic era, leading to a healthy market for others to follow suit. People are buying precious time on their days for better utilization. Some people are more convinced to take a traditional subsonic red-eye flight with exclusive business or first-class seat together with better amenity and hard-products to isolate themselves in the next 8–10 hours of cruise, then freshen up upon landing and go straight to work or home.

With all the promises in cutting the norm of a certification process of the conventional commercial airplane while at the same time protecting the environment, could these accommodating steps be enough to prevent the same circumstances that occurred on Concorde before?



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