Supersonic Air Travel: It's Gotta Happen

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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. 

Comments (24)

As I recall, one of the nails in the Concorde coffin was the ban on overland supersonic flights due to noise. England, for example, had hoped to serve its far-flung colonial empire, such as London-to-New Delhi.

As a result of this restriction the number of cities served dropped to effectively three (London, Paris, New York). The market for building a large number of SSTs evaporated. Now development costs were spread over only about 20 examples. The direct, per-flight operating costs may have been covered by ticket prices, but the planes were otherwise unaffordable by the private sector. I remember reading one interview with an Air France representative about how much it cost to fly and maintain a Concorde. The rep kind of shrugged and said, "we have an understanding with the government".

Now, Boom earlier claimed they would solve the "sonic boom" noise problem (so why put it in their name? Maybe they should've call themselves "Hush"? Hopefully their branding- and marketing-think hasn't invaded the engineering spaces). If true, that would certainly open up a lot of city-pairs that *might* make the economics work.

But call me a cynical optimist - I hope to see it, but don't expect it. But, hey, even the Chicago Cubs won the World Series!

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | June 24, 2017 6:25 AM    Report this comment

Excellent analysis ... one of your better blogs ... I can tell that you're back from 'over there.' :-)

On the subject of airline ticket costs ... a few years ago I needed to purchase a couple of one-way return tickets to the US after a trans-Atlantic cruise. I found that it was cheaper to buy a round trip ticket than a one way ticket and then let the second half go unfilled. I still don't understand that logic? I coulda bought one round trip but used both seat-miles on the return trip ... no?

On noise, the Company I worked for collaborated with NASA, DARPA, et al about 10 years ago to do research into mitigating the sonic boom noise signature of an airplane moving faster than Mach 1. We massively reshaped the nose of an old worn out aggressor F-5 and then flew it against the standard F-5 at Edwards AFB. That airplane was called the Shaped Sonic Boom Demo or SSBD. It's at the Valiant Air Command museum if anyone is interested? (See: Using noise measuring equipment, it was discovered that the noise spike can be reduced but not eliminated by careful shaping of the airframe. The stripes painted on the side of the airframe signify the reduction in the sonic boom overpressure by the reshaping of the nose. Right afterward, several companies started making noise about building supersonic airliners.

Now, I see where NASA and Honeywell are collaborating on sonic boom predictive software and displaying this to the pilot. So I suppose that between careful shaping of the airframe and flying where sonic booms are less likely could help to allow supersonic flight over land. That said, I lived on Edwards AFB for nearly 15 years and I can tell you that sonic booms can be a real pain when they 'sneak up' on ya. At my summer location up north, I'm under a large MOA. Recently, F-22's were doing a lot of that sort of work and people were getting mighty antsy over it. So the noise issue -- not mentioned in your excellent analysis -- is going to be a problem on overland runs. I don't see it happening.

The Concorde was pretty unique and I regret not parting with the pittance they wanted to experience a flight at OSH the years they flew in. Today's domestic flights are filled to the gills with "cattle" because of low fares. As fares rise, fewer people can justify the costs. There is some happy medium of seat cost / profit v. benefit to faster travel but I question if it's sustainable. I wish them good luck ... methinks they're gonna need it. The chemtrails people are gonna be 'on' them in a flash, too.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 24, 2017 7:41 AM    Report this comment

Reality is that airliners are flying SLOWER because people buy on seat-price, not time. Slowing down to 350-400kts saves fuel and thus lowers seat-price to make a competitive advantage. Bigger slower planes can also carry more cargo that further subsidized low seat-prices that the public are looking for and comparing prices with other airlines.

Boom is WRONG; they will have a significant competitive disadvantage when it comes to moving people from point A to point B. That's what doomed Concord and the market is even worse now since business travelers are cutting all sorts costs and you don't get 1st class seats (much less more costly supersonic seats). Vacationers don't mind 2-3 more hours travel if the seats are only $250 to exotic places.

Sorry Paul, it not only is not gonna happen, it's trending the other way.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 24, 2017 9:28 AM    Report this comment

Is Boom on the verge of an aviation breakthrough or a financial break in to investor's wallets? It is too early to tell. Would be nice to see SST again available to the public. Time will tell but it is worth watching. As with all inventing, one must experience many failures and learn from each one. With good engineering, perseverance, imagination, financing and lots of luck, it just may happen for Boom. Wish them good luck and watch closely.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | June 24, 2017 9:44 AM    Report this comment

' not only is not gonna happen, it's trending the other way."

Interesting perspective based on current trends lasting forever which, of course, they don't. It begets another quote:

"The energy necessary to propel a ship would be many times greater than that required to drive a train of cars at the same speed; hence as a means of rapid transit, flying could not begin to compete with the railroad." --Popular Science magazine, 1897.

Yet not only did flying compete, it dominated rail and the transition began in the mid-1950s. Today, air passenger miles are double train passenger miles (including commuter trains) and are 40 times safer. In the mid-1950s, steamship companies thought flying across the Atlantic would be a niche market for the very rich. Then the 707 and DC-8 appeared.

Then the airlines thought trans-Atlantic jet travel would be limited by irreducible economics. Then the 747 came along. Deregulation followed. Those were 10-year transitions that reversed existing trends with technological breakthroughs few could see because they so embraced current trends as lasting forever. But they never do.

So what's the transition time to supersonic or hypersonic airline travel? Who knows? But it seems inconceivable to me that it's never. As long as man can rub two sticks together, progress, over the long term, goes in one direction: forward.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 25, 2017 7:08 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the quote from 1897.
It is still valid since "the ENERGY necessary" is still correct and it makes my point.
The 747 is far more efficient that Concorde in passenger seat mpg as well as cargo.
Was the Concorde a profitable project? Nope. It was more of a political endeavor than an economic one.

Political and childlike dreaming is fine; but not the stuff of reasoned conversations between adults. I rely on economics and physics when holding a conversation about economics and physics.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 25, 2017 9:19 AM    Report this comment

Paul is absolutely correct. Regardless of the technical and economic issues that currently seem to say otherwise, a new generation SST will be developed. The only question is when. However, to me, the biggest hurdle for Boom is range. The most attractive routes for high speed air transit are over the Pacific Ocean from North America to Asia and Australia. Long over water routes where sonic booms are not an issue. But, with a 4,500 mile range, there is no way they can reach Asia without a stop, either in Hawaii or Alaska. Even Hawaii is a stretch. Maybe they should consider in-flight refueling? ;-)

Posted by: John McNamee | June 25, 2017 5:06 PM    Report this comment

"Whoa. How will they ever count the profits?"

Paul, this gives me a chuckle ha ha! The sheer irony of this gem when considered in the context of aviation-related financials! You are definitely "on the step" this morning, no doubt!

Posted by: A Richie | June 26, 2017 8:57 AM    Report this comment

Years from now, PB's replacement will be opining about how personal matter transportation will soon replace supersonic 'Boom' airplanes ... and time marches on. :-)) Of course, the company proposing such a "disruptive technology" will be bringing a slick computer rendering and maybe even a mockup of the thing to Paris looking for capital. A magician could probably work something out between two magic boxes? Heck, Sir Richard may even buy a few so he could get to his island estates faster. I think most of the cost of such a scheme will be for insurance in case a few of your 'molecules' get lost in transmission and you aren't quite 'whole' on the receiving end. And, of course, I take pause to wonder if the FAA will have to regulate this under still another new FAR which controls the "pilot" of the transporter? Or will this be an autonomous operation? Yars ... whaddya think?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 26, 2017 2:40 PM    Report this comment

I think I'll stick to simple autonomous airplanes, Larry. I'll leave the beaming to Scotty.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 26, 2017 8:35 PM    Report this comment

Paul is absolutely right, it's gonna happen. The question to when is more a matter of how much. There is a clamoring today for better service in air travel, instead of the typical cattle cars they've become. A 1st class treatment aboard an SST would certainly appeal to many!

The market is ready for a fundamental transformation. Boeing is struggling to add value in each subsequent generation of aircraft in the market they first crafted with their 707. What more can be done to a cigar shaped aircraft with engines slung under long wings? Which aircraft can squeeze an additional fraction of a percent of economy the 737Max or A320neo? Whoever brings an economic SST to market will transform the marketplace and create a new trend for many years to come just as the 707 did!

My last trip to Japan I purchased round trip tickets on 3 different aircraft based on the economy price. When I discovered my longest leg had me in a cramped middle seat I wanted to upgrade, but was locket into the economy ticket and would have to cancel the whole trip and rebook to effect a change. I would have gladly paid the $75 more for an upgrade if I had been allowed. I feel many would do the same on a vacation trip to Hawaii or Europe and if you could cut the trip by an hour or more aboard an SST, I would certainly pay much more!

I for one vote for an economical SST sooner rather than later and I'm talking about a real competitor to the 737 and A320 series!

Posted by: Thomas Wiley | June 27, 2017 12:41 PM    Report this comment

Thomas is correct; it's a matter of "how much". Think of it as a moon project. You can do anything if you spend trillions of other peoples money on a political project. Problem is, once you achieve it, it immediately shows to be economically (and therefore politically) UNSUSTAINABLE.

Landing on the moon is even more possible TODAY than it was ~50 years ago. WHERE are the companies that are flying passengers to the moon? Just because you can dream it and do it does not mean that it's profitable or sustainable. Q.E.D.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 27, 2017 7:43 PM    Report this comment

Among the best of your blog posts, Paul. And the debate is even better. Love your command of language and your ability to illuminate irony through humor.

Posted by: Lee Buechler | June 28, 2017 6:18 AM    Report this comment

It's not a moon project; it's a 747 project. When Boeing developed that aircraft, it bet the entire company's future on the success and viability of that idea. There was no assurance that it would work. I'm sure if you were commenting then, you'd have said there's no interest in an airplane that big.

These days, an aircraft development project runs in the $10 to $15 billion range. The 787 was $13 billion. And therein lies the challenge for the SST. No reason to believe it would be any cheaper, so the question becomes can you sell enough airplanes to justify the investment? It's not a slam dunk either way. It's a big risk. There's no question there are people who will pay to fly on such a thing, just as there's no question Mercedes will continue to sell 100,000 S-Class cars at $100K a pop. But how many?

Thirty years ago, the idea of private sector space launching was preposterous. It was such a tall hill to climb, no company could afford to do it, even the big ones like Lockheed and Boeing. And yet, SpaceX launched two missions this week and is headed toward a bi-weekly launch cadence. It's a closely held company, not public. It's barely profitable, according to the Wall Street Journal, but it's not circling the drain, either.

More on that later.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 28, 2017 7:12 AM    Report this comment

"There is a clamoring today for better service in air travel, instead of the typical cattle cars they've become. A 1st class treatment aboard an SST would certainly appeal to many!"

Sure, until the masses realize how much such a ticket will cost. The reason we have cattle car seating and amenities is because that's what the people want: dirt-cheap tickets at all costs. So the only way the airlines can make that work is to cram as many people into the cabin as possible.

Will there be people who will pay? Obviously yes, since there were paying passengers on Concorde, and those same people are still around. But not nearly as many as those who will continue to pay for low-cost flights.

Even so, I support a new SST even if it's unlikely in the near future that I'll be able to ride in one. It shows the forward progress of mankind, just as the manned moon missions did.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 28, 2017 7:46 AM    Report this comment

Can SST or other "premium" travel exist concurrently with cattle-car-class aerial transportation? Outback steak houses exist in the same neighborhoods as McDonald's restaurants. Go figure!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 28, 2017 10:27 AM    Report this comment

Having formerly worked in the airline industry, I think some of the commentators are wide of the mark. Boom is not seeking to meet the demand of the mass market, and it will never be a threat to take away the economy class seats of the larger aircraft.

Instead, they are seeking to skim the cream off the top. Those folks who fly international business trips and do so in first class. Think of it more as the charter/corporate aircraft market than the traditional airline market. If I can go supersonic (half the time to the destinantion) and pay the same price as first class, I would do so if I was in that market. In fact, I could see some large corporations with wide spread holdings buying these aircraft, converting them to 20 seats and using them as international executive shuttles.

It is rare that an aircraft manufacturer does not over-promise and under-deliver. The purity of the engineering design rarely translates to the real world. The range will be a real issue, because one or two fuel stops may destroy much of the time advantage of the supersonic speeds. (Think the tortoise and the hare.) The durability of the aircraft will also be a challenge. If the aircraft, though with fewer seats, is twice as fast, and, thus, can fly twice as many flights (frequency), it is the equivilant of two sub-sonic aircraft. Also crew costs would be less because one crew with three hour hops from NYC to LHR, can handle the immediate return. This could reduce crew costs by half. There MAY be some economics there.

Historically, 500 aircraft has been the benchmark of production success for an airliner. Are there enough rich folks/large corporations willing to fill, not 55 seats, but 33 seats (a 60% load factor - a high break-even factor) each trip? If they plan on a 100% load factor, the venture will never be a success. If a flight is consistently at an 80% load factor, it is "full"; all seats filled one time, fewer on another, but it is hard to book the flight. People stop trying to book after repeated attempts, so 80% becomes the defacto "full" standard. (Oversimplified, but basically correct.)

The market is worldwide. Smaller aircraft with a higher degree of frequency stimulate the market. Will it be as profitable as stuffing 365 people into a flying tube? No, it cannot be, and this is where the big airlines will resist and not be interested. But what about a start-up, or some government-owned airline (the Arabs for example), who want the aircraft to make a profit, but are not as concerned about the margins as is a public company? Those folks are out there, but it comes back to the first question: Can they make the economics of this airplane work well enough that it can make money with 33 people flying at first class rates, on average, for each flight, and make it reliable enough to double the frequency of the sub-sonic competition?

Posted by: Gary Risley | June 28, 2017 10:43 AM    Report this comment

'When Boeing developed that aircraft, it bet the entire company's future on the success and viability of that idea'

You have your history wrong Paul. The SST was the big project while the 747 Jumbo was a pet project conceived by Pan Am president Juan Trippe who was able to convince Boeing president Bill Allen during their golf game in Seattle in 1965. The 747 was what we call a slow track project, where coming in on the cost target is #1 (small team), as opposed to a fast track project that most aircraft development projects are where coming in on time is #1 (large team). At that time the 747 was a stop gap until the SST could be delivered and was expected to eventually become a freight hauler. When the SST project that Beoing bet so much money on was canceled, it was the 747 that saved the company.

Posted by: Thomas Wiley | June 28, 2017 1:47 PM    Report this comment

Thanks, but I don't think so, Thomas. You must be reading different history. This is from the Boeing site and I've read it in other places. This is from an article written by Dwight Bates, one of the so-called Incredibles.

"The Incredibles slept at their desks rather than to go home. I remember many times leaving to walk out to my car at midnight after working overtime. We were told in an all-hands meeting that if we did not FAA-certify the 747, we would lose The Boeing Company. Boeing management had bet the company when they borrowed so much money that we needed to build, certify, sell and deliver the 747s to remain solvent."

You're right about Trippe. He committed to the project, but he didn't have to pay for it. Even almost 50 years after the fact, as the 747 reaches end-state, it gives me the willies to think about the risk.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 28, 2017 1:58 PM    Report this comment

The 747, the product of a complex, demanding collaborative design process, became an icon of the modern age, much to Boeing's surprise.

The company considered the 747 a less-important intermediate product: something for the lower-end subsonic market. They expected to sell a couple of hundred units or so and projected that it would find more use as a container-carrying freight plane.

see The Unexpected Success of the Boeing 747 - it keeps flagging the link as spam!

Posted by: Thomas Wiley | June 28, 2017 3:35 PM    Report this comment

"Joe Sutter, who was in charge of building the 747, said how difficult it was to get engineers to design that airplane because they were all committed to supersonic transport."

"The 2707 had a lot of effect on the development of the 747, he says. "The thinking was that all the world's airlines would want supersonic transport, and no-one would buy these subsonic airliners. So Boeing had to plan that some time in the 1970s they would have to turn all these 747s into cargo freighters. It turns out that we only needed to start doing that a few years ago."

See BBC - The American Concordes that never flew - link flagged as spam again!

Posted by: Thomas Wiley | June 28, 2017 3:38 PM    Report this comment


There seems to be two stories, either the Boeing 747 was a salvaged program from a lost contract to the government transport aircraft that was converted to a passenger aircraft that they only expected to sell a couple of hundred aircraft that turned into an unexpected success or it was a break the bank and bet the company on it's success. I can certainly believe Dwight Bates story that in the last few months that was the situation he was facing, but it's not at all how the project was started.


Posted by: Thomas Wiley | June 28, 2017 3:45 PM    Report this comment

The modest Mach numbers contemporary airliners operate at reflect a very steep increase in the aerodynamic and thermodynamic barriers that begin to manifest themselves in the low trans-sonic region.

The operators who do fly up in this region, or close to it, are the military, large corporations and the unusually wealthy. They can afford the accompanying energy penalty.

These are the likely market for the new SST. That market could be substantial, say, 100+ airframes. A lot depends on what the military does.

Posted by: kim hunter | June 28, 2017 4:18 PM    Report this comment

To post a link, past it in and strip off the http portion. It won't link, but readers can past it into a browser to get to the page.

Now that you mention Sutter, you jog my memory. I saw a documentary interview with him by the BBC in which he described the 747 as a sort of secondary project to the SST, including that story about trying to get engineers. But when the SST cancelled, Boeing had to borrow a ton of money to develop and certify it, hence Bates' comments. I think both impressions are probably true.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 28, 2017 6:15 PM    Report this comment

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