Supersonic Air Travel: It's Gotta Happen
Last February, when I was planning a visit to Daher’s factory in Tarbes, France, I was surfing the web looking for airline fares when I saw one from Miami to Madrid for $640; outbound on Iberia, return on American. I see this sort of thing often enough to know that it’s not an everyday thing, but it’s no fluke, either. Typically, trans-Atlantic fares are twice that, if not a little more.
From what research I can gather, Iberia’s seat-mile costs are on the low end of the international carriers, but not low enough to fly me to Madrid for $320. For some interesting context, when I was a college student in 1972, I flew to Europe a couple of times on Pan Am’s then youth fares; $199 round trip. In 2017 dollars, that’s $1167 or just about what the average trans-Atlantic coach airfare is today. The $640 I paid for the Madrid fare would have been $109 in 1972. These are, of course, the sort of ridiculous economics only the airline industry can summon. But don’t worry, my seatmate probably paid $1300 and all those folks up in business and first class are producing the profit. I’m not weeping for Iberia.
Now let’s exit the cheap seats and consider the opposite end of what some companies seem to think is an extension of the current spectrum: supersonic travel for the moneyed masses, not just the few. At the Paris Air Show this week, a Colorado company called Boom was flogging a three-engine, single-aisle airliner which, it says, will be capable of Mach 2.2, a bit faster than the Concorde was. Claimed range is a little fuzzy. Boom says any stage lengths longer than 4500 miles assume a “tech stop,” their version of a fuel stop. Trips of up to 9000 miles are possible with the tech stop. The unrefueled range is marginally better than Concorde’s legs, which pushed to make 4000 miles.
Boom claims that to reset the supersonic market, the airplane needs to be only about 30 percent more efficient than Concorde, which it says it will achieve with technologies like composite fuselages, high-temperature materials and improved engines. It’s a popular misconception, however, that Concorde’s economics never worked and that it wasn’t profitable. Once the airlines operating it figured out how to charge passengers what they thought the service was actually worth, the airplanes were quite profitable. Concorde’s demise was due to a combination of declining load factors, a soft economy after the 9/11 attacks and Concorde’s looming end of life. There was never a follow-on product. Concorde had no resilience to resist market swings.
Boom’s seating capacity of only 55 addresses this, the logic being that airlines operating it can probably fill 55 seats at $5000 a pop easier than Concorde could fill 100 at $12,000 to $16,000 each. Boom claims it will have the same seat-mile costs as subsonic airliners flying business-class passengers. I’m sure this will provoke some eye rolling in Seattle and Toulouse. (Or Chicago and Paris.)
Says Boom’s optimistic promo copy: “The first airlines to adopt supersonic jets will enjoy a significant competitive advantage. The advantage of 2.6x faster flight will allow them to win competitors' most profitable premium passengers. Further, a halo effect increases share even on subsonic routes, as customers prefer to earn loyalty points with carriers who offer supersonic.” Evidently Richard Branson is convinced. He signed up Virgin for options on 10 airplanes. I wonder if he thought to ask if there will be gates for all those airplanes because really, Boom is proposing an RJ-sized airplane, meaning more airplanes to move the same number of people across the pond. Theoretically, new airplanes can open new city pairs to solve this problem. That's what discounter Norwegian Airlines is doing with the 737 MAX.
Essentially, without using the same words, Boom is laying claim to disruptive technology in the same way Eclipse did and for the same reasons: technological leveraging. Stipulating that this time it will really work, an airline operating a Boom or an airplane like it should have no trouble selling tickets if, indeed, they actually do sell for the same price as current business or first-class seats, which Boom insists they will.
Every day, about 2500 flights cross the Atlantic, carrying about 50,000 premium passengers—business or first. Those seats sell for as little as $2100, but more like $2500 to $10,000 or a lot more, depending on the route. If supersonic travel penetrated half that—and why wouldn’t it, because if the price is the same, why not go more than twice as fast?—that’s a market for 500 airplanes. Whoa. How will they ever count the profits?
But, as we all know, aviation has a way of dope slapping the unwary, the over optimistic, the bright-eyed and he who can’t resist plugging garbage into a spreadsheet, thinking all the while that the numbers are “conservative.” Aircraft development programs often take longer, cost more and miss their performance promises, sometimes by margins wide enough to tank the whole thing, if not the entire idea, which was the case with the very light jet. (Cirrus excepted.)
To get to the point of disrupting anything other than the investors' wallets, Boom, or a company like it, first has to design the airplane and survive the money burn while it certifies it. Then the biggie: Figure out how to build the damn thing efficiently in sufficient numbers to precipitate a business plan. (Fascinating side fact: Boeing has announced it’s working on the NMA—New Midsize Airplane—and although it hasn’t even committed to the program, it has already built 200 aircraft—in a computer simulation.)
A new entrant into the airliner market faces almost impossible challenges. But let's indulge ourselves and ask if Boom could be a nimble David to the sclerotic twin Goliaths of Boeing and Airbus? Anything is possible, but those two aerospace giants didn’t get to be giants by failing to understand the airline transportation market. Boeing demurred on the supersonic idea in 1971, when it abandoned the 2707. Aerospatiale/BAC forged ahead with the Concorde, built only 20 and saw them retired 27 years later. Was that a success or a failure? I’d call it both a success and a marvel, if not a long-lived one. That tiny production run worked for a government consortium, but wouldn't for a public company.
Worth noting, however, is that the Concorde may have been done in partially because of powerful world market forces that expanded airline travel through deregulation and substantial reduction of seat-mile costs, a trend that continues yet today. Boeing’s NMA will be the most efficient two-aisle airliner ever. This has expanded the affordability of airline travel globally. That $199 fare I paid in 1972 was a direct result of the 747's market entrance.
What makes me think supersonic transport flight will come back is timing. The essence of good transportation is speed; there’s no percentage in going slow unless you’re sailing, and maybe not even then. With Concorde’s brief exception, the speed of air transport has been stuck between Mach 0.75 and 0.86 for 60 years. In the grand sweep of technological progress, I can’t imagine that rut is going to last forever.
Whether Boom or someone else breaks out of it, the quest for higher, farther and faster seems inevitable to me. It’s just going to take the right combination of technology, market interest and wealth willing to be consumed in the name of getting there quicker. The critical mass will be enough demand for a manufacturer to launch a program with reasonable volume and long production legs. Twenty airplanes won't do that. Several hundred or a thousand looks better. This might come out of the business aircraft segment in the Aerion SBJ, the HyperMach SonicStar or the Spike S-512 to name just three, but they confront the same market demand of finding enough volume to justify the investment.
One downside of Boom’s projection is that if small supersonic jets siphon off sufficient numbers of premium travelers, the cheap seats may go the way of piston airliners. With no upper-class subsidy, they’d have to cost more. Pity. I like flying to Madrid for $320.