The world has not seen a civil supersonic jet since the Concorde was retired in 2003. Why was the Concorde relegated to the history books? And what does the next generation of supersonic aircraft have in store for us?
What Happened to the Concorde?
For those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s the Concorde represented worldly aspirations and a jet-set lifestyle. However, despite its cachet and impressive speed – it cruised at twice the speed of sound – the Concorde’s operating life was beset by problems.
High maintenance costs combined with sky-high ticket prices – as much as USD 18,260 in modern money – as well as bans on supersonic travel over many countries meant the plane was quickly relegated to transatlantic flights for the wealthy.
In the 2000s, two tragedies in the span of little more than a year signalled the end for commercial supersonic travel.
First came the Air France flight 4590 crash in 2000. Two engines failed immediately after take-off and the Concorde crashed into a restaurant, killing all 109 passengers and crew onboard as well as four other people.
Then in 2001 the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City made people more wary of air travel, further reducing the Concorde’s already niche market.
The Concorde was also showing its age. While it was a technological marvel when it first began operation in 1976, breaking ground with innovations never before seen in an airliner, by 2003 the analogue cockpit controls were outdated if not outright archaic.
What was once a symbol of status, luxury and the ingenuity of human engineering became an expensive liability that had to be retired.
The good news is that the heady days of supersonic travel seem to be on the verge of making a comeback.
The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is collaborating with other aviation authorities around the globe to propose new regulations for supersonic travel. In their own words, the FAA is ‘taking steps to advance the development of civil supersonic aircraft.’
From an engineering standpoint, advances in technology like carbon-fibre composite materials can make aircraft lighter and more cost-effective to run, which makes supersonic flight a concept worth revisiting for enterprising corporations.
Currently three companies are at the forefront of a new generation of faster-than-sound jets.
Aimed firmly at the high-powered executives for whom time is money and a supersonic aircraft is a worthwhile investment, the jet will be able to carry up to 12 passengers and is scheduled to makes its first supersonic flight in 2023.
Likewise, Spike Aerospace is developing supersonic jets for the same market and is focused on providing a luxurious experience which include panoramic wrap-around windows.
With a slightly bigger capacity of 18 passengers and a faster top speed of Mach 1.6, the two companies look set to compete in the same arena.
For those of us that are not millionaires Boom Supersonic is working on a supersonic airliner that is decidedly more affordable, albeit still pricey. Boom says a ticket for their aircraft will cost around the same as a business class airfare.
‘Making supersonic flight mainstream.’ is the tagline on their website and they have already received investment and orders from Virgin Group and Japan Airlines for their 55-seater jet which can reach Mach 2.2.
Of course, the concept of supersonic travel and the reality of having jets breaking the sound barrier above your house are two entirely different things.
It is easier to be excited at the prospect of faster travel if your windows are not rattling out of their frames from sonic booms.
Notwithstanding practical considerations, at the very least things are looking interesting for the aerospace industry and fans of fast flying aircraft.