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Will Supersonic aircraft make a comeback?

Will Supersonic aircraft make a comeback?
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By Satyendra Pandey  Oct 8, 2020 5:37:47 PM IST (Updated)

Supersonic flights may very well change the face of air travel

A prototype of the newest supersonic aircraft named the XB1 was unveiled yesterday. The company behind it is called Boom Supersonic and hopes to prove production and commercial viability by the end of the decade. It is an innovation that may very well change the face of air travel.

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The transport sector has off late witnessed multiple innovations. These include advanced drones, fully-automated and remotely controlled flight-decks, aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities, advances in urban air mobility, and advances in aircraft design. One such innovation is a return to supersonic flight. And indeed it is time. Because technology exists where a transcontinental trip should only take 3-4 hours instead of the 7-8 hours it does. But progress has been stagnant on this front.
Regulators are also reviewing policies in this regard. In 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration (the US aviation regulator) was re-authorised by the United States Congress and tasked to set supersonic civil transport regulations. Further, the ban on supersonic flight over US land that has been in effect since 1973 is to be reviewed by 2025. To be sure this ban only extends to flights over land and does not apply to flights over water.
Aircraft designers have already been designing aircraft that fly just below the speed of sound. The Gulfstream G650 flies at Mach 0.925 while the Cessna Citation X flies at Mach 0.935. Pushing this just a bit more brings it into the realm of supersonic transport. Here innovations in wing design are already underway and engine makers having delivered very high efficiency from existing engines are likely to be up for a challenge. Indeed, as it stands, several engine makers will move to clean-sheet designs for the next round of engine designs.
On the technology front new composite materials, advances in propulsion and innovations in sound modeling are paving the way. Extensive work has been done on “boom-shaping” which refers to how the shockwaves are separated once the sound barrier is broken. Aerospace designers have worked with structures that leverage design towards boom shaping thereby minimising impact.
Marketplace changes also may help firm up a case for supersonic transport. As the low-cost revolution takes hold, concepts such as ultra-long-haul are being tested and as aircraft sizes dwindle, the sad truth is that we are flying slower, more crammed and longer segments. This holds true for all classes of travel. Yet between the folks that can afford private jets and those that have to fly commercial because there is no other option but will move to supersonic transport if given the choice the market size is estimated to be between $200—$300 billion. The market-size speaks volumes because in the grand scheme of things it is a small market. Thus traditional manufactures like Airbus and Boeing are not likely to gravitate here (excluding projects funded by the military). The field is thus open for adequately funded startups and or governments that push innovation to the forefront.
Yet in a catch-22 situation, manufacturers require a certain number of committed orders to make a viable case for supersonic aircraft. For airlines committing to such an aircraft is a challenge. Because it is a model that has only been tried by British Airways, Air France and Singapore Airlines and that too traces back to flights flown on the Concorde—forty years ago. A lot has changed since then.
CompanyAircraft typeSpeedCapacity*
AerionBusiness jet1.28 – 12
BoomPassenger jet2.255 - 75
HypermachBusiness jet6.650 - 55
ExosonicPassenger jet1.850 - 70
Spike AerospaceBusiness jet1.8n/a
*some capacity numbers have been estimated based on available details
That said, several factors are aligning which may have flight-path ahead clearing up for Supersonic transport. This includes movements such as flight-shaming in Europe, the move to “green-equity” or the fact that the world requires transport solutions that are just faster and better. With flights that fly twice as fast, on a consolidated basis, the “waste” generated is half as much. Utilization doubles and perhaps “all-premium” operators will emerge. In the race are firms that range from Aerion Supersonic, Boom Technology, HyperMach, Exosonic and Spike Aerospace. And to make this possible the funding sources include the venture capital ecosystem, foreign governments, organisations such as NASA and also the Air Force (the US government actually has a technology accelerator program for startups).
The return to supersonic transport cannot happen soon enough. Yet for a multitude of reasons, this has simply not happened. The famed venture capitalist Peter Thiel astutely observed that we are so busy looking at our phones that we have failed to see that there has been very little innovation in transport and how we move goods and people around us. Indeed while ordering cabs via the phone or communicating via short characters or via messages that disappear has been innovative, transportation solutions, for the most part, have stayed the same. With supersonic transport once again on the anvil that may just change in the years to come.
—Satyendra Pandey has held a variety of assignments in aviation. He is the former head of strategy at a fast-growing airline. Previously he was with the Centre for Aviation (CAPA) where he led the advisory and research teams. Satyendra has been involved in restructuring, scaling, and turnarounds. 
Read his columns here.
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