Aerion: All Spreadsheets, No Sizzle


While my long suffering wife has called me many versions of the same thing, often in colorful language, I would not characterize myself as a wild-eyed romantic. Yet my life, and by extension hers, is littered with the unfinished, sometimes half-baked and, I hasten to add, modestly successful flights of fancy that, to me, make life interesting.

It’s almost always messy, frequently expensive and occasionally satisfying and there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to stop it. But that doesn’t mean we live in a refrigerator box. One must do what must be done, after all.

So, when I first heard that Aerion, certainly one of the aviation industry’s most ambitious and expensive startups, had failed to launch after 17 years of trying and untold millions spent, I didn’t know what to make of it.

If ever there was a perfectly planned, well financed and thoroughly rational project, it was Aerion.

Having a billionaire backer is a big bonus in the quest for a multibillion-dollar project. Next, line up the best and the brightest established aviation legends to join the board and finally get working early on having the FAA write a whole new chapter of regs to facilitate the dream.

From the start, Aerion was impressive. Its slick presentations at the major shows and its measured progress reports, always hopeful but also realistic, oozed confidence and reason. 

But something always nagged at me and it did others in the aviation press corps. As time went on, the slickness and the oozing continued but there was nothing to show for it.

We were told that wind tunnel tests were underway and I have no reason to believe they weren’t. At one point the future airplane underwent a complete redesign and we all dutifully included it in our coverage but with little but some artist’s renderings and a lot of engineering talk as a foundation.

About five years ago, there was open cynicism about Aerion. For me, the turning point in my attitude toward Aerion was the announcement that General Electric had agreed to develop the engine. GE didn’t get to where it is by squandering resources but it also had to take some risks along the way. That GE thought Aerion was worth betting on made the whole project more real to me, as real as tossing around billions of dollars will ever get to me anyway.

I think it had a similar effect on some others. The order book became downright impressive with big-name fractionals and some of the world’s most notoriously rich willing to buy 92 of the $120 million planes. That’s more than $10 billion in orders against a launch cost that the company repeatedly estimated as about $4 billion. 

Not only that, the FAA had begun regulatory work to allow for testing and to lay the groundwork for having “boomless” supersonic jets zipping over a blissfully silent land (not counting the neighbor’s leaf blower).

And yet, the company pulled the pin because it couldn’t raise the investment money it said it needed to overcome all those admittedly daunting challenges. Assuming the company was being straight about all the reams of information it had dispensed over the years, this should have worked. Everything was there except a couple of things.

As well done as Aerion’s public persona was, it lacked, for the wont of a less overused term, passion. The perfectly coifed and suited captains of aviation who showed up for the shows and the hired hands that buzzed around them exuded competence and even grace. I never saw one of them break a sweat.

That’s such a contrast to ducking the spittle during one of Alan Klapmeier’s full-throated diatribes on the Cirrus jet or even the almost shy and reserved Dick VanGrunsven standing for hours on end in the hot Palm Springs sun explaining every detail of the latest RV to anyone who wanted to listen.

Most importantly, there wasn’t an airplane. Even a full-sized mock-up would have helped but when you’re selling something, there has to be something for buyers to touch and wonder at. Other bizjet companies figured that out a long time ago. We are tactile creatures and the most professional and thorough spreadsheets, drawings and paintings can never substitute for sitting on the seats and looking out the windows.

In short, where Aerion failed was perhaps in the least expected way. For all the experts they attracted and all the big names they got on board, they didn’t have a salesman, an unabashed cheerleader who could describe a world that couldn’t live without supersonic transport.

Aerion’s demise isn’t the end of the quest for civilian supersonic flight. At least a couple of other companies are working on it and the Air Force’s interest in a supersonic version of Air Force One has added some sizzle to the pan but I think before any of those ventures can succeed, they need to generate some excitement, not to mention huge amounts of cash.

I wonder if Elon Musk would like to pick up the pieces? That would be interesting ….

And if you know anyone interested in four rusting Toyota Landcruiser hulks that would make two really great examples of the greatest SUV of all time, give my wife a call. She seems to think they should go.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. Jet packs, flying cars, autonomous air taxis, personal supersonic jets. All of these have been “promised” for many decades.

    What is surprising is that people still dream of them despite reality; more surprising are people dropping millions on proven market failures.

  2. And today, United Airlines announced that they have “an agreement” to acquire 15 supersonic airplanes (more vaporware) from Boom – with an option to acquire 35 more. Forget the second 49; just show me the first one.
    But hey – it’s “optimized to run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel.” At $25 per gallon, that’s certainly going to add to the attraction of the vaporware.
    If this announcement was intended to boost Boom’s credibility, it has had the opposite effect on me: it has lowered the credibility of United Airlines – significantly.

  3. There goes Aerion, here comes Boom Supersonic. I wonder if Boom is in the same hangar that Adam Air once occupied?
    So United, one of the airlines that needed billions of dollars via the taxpayer in the past 18 months, now found enough money to buy early models of the Boom jet not scheduled to fly until 2030. Under a former CEO, UAL also bought hotels and car rental agencies to provide a seamless travel experience. Later, sold all that since that model didn’t make money. The airfreight operation out of Anchorage was eventually abandoned for the same reason, otherwise it would still be flying. So now it’s “Boom”, will this end in a bust?

    Come on AvWeb, we need a story on this Boom business.

    • >>So United, one of the airlines that needed billions of dollars via the taxpayer in the past 18 months, now found enough money to buy early models of the Boom jet<<
      I'll bet very little money, if any, changed hands.

  4. This is all kind of depressing.

    During a school trip to France in 1976 I remember landing at Charles de Gaulle, and there they were, Concordes, parked beside Caravelles and Tridents. Ah, this was it! The future! No more grueling long trips like I had just endured.

    Here we are, 45 years later, and commercial and business aviation are excruciatingly boring. 737s, Airbuses, ugly long range bizjets – all going no faster than 707s did in the late 50s. I am amazed people of power, the world travelers, haven’t demanded change.

    Sure, we are safer, quieter, more efficient, and have lots of gadgets to play with. But our true pioneering spirit died long ago.

    There could be hope. As mentioned Musk might be the one who could finally get it done.

    • Among the many things that haven’t changed since the 1950s, are the laws of physics and chemistry. Not even true pioneering spirit can change those things. Cheer up, Todd. There’s still Boom…

      • The laws of physics and chemistry hasn’t changed since the 1950s, but our understanding and ability to use them certainly has.

        Modern alloys that didn’t exist in the 1950s makes for jet engines that are more powerful, efficient, and reliable than anything that came before.

        Computers that were inconceivable in the 50s now allow for designing, testing, and running aircraft in ways that would’ve been impossible before.

        Heck – in the 1950s going to the moon was impossible.

        Now, there may not be enough advancements yet to make commercial supersonic flight viable. But if it doesn’t happen it’s not because the laws of physics say it’s impossible.

    • Actually we are going slower than the 707s, DC8s, Convair 880s and 990s of yesteryear. They used to push up against the Mach limits because fuel was cheap and time expensive. Now putting along at .78 Mach or so is the thing as fuel is expensive and time cheap.

  5. “Among the many things that haven’t changed since the 1950s, are the laws of physics and chemistry”
    I agree 100%.
    Flying first class on a DC-8 or on the upper deck of a 747 was an experience you could savor and not wish it to end too soon. If a supersonic transport makes it back into operation like UAL is planning with Boom, the airfares will be well above what the current crowd is willing to pay. Easy money is available for any start up these days and I wonder what currency the UAL CEO gains by this transaction.

  6. Aerion went boom and bust, will Boom follow?

    The big difference is that Boom actually have a plane, that flies supersonic, if just a test vehicle.

    Aerion had spreadsheets and presentations, but nothing like a plane. Sad!

    Well, I didn’t invest in this vaporware, so why complain, kept a lot of people occupied and paid?!

    • > The big difference is that Boom actually have a plane, that flies supersonic, if just a test vehicle.

      No, they just have a scale model.

      The biggest problem the Concorde had was that it cannibalized the first class passengers of Air France and BA, so that’s why the planes weren’t given to Virgin. There will be a similar problem with Boom, if they certify anything, which they won’t.

  7. Not to worry, later this month the government is going to tell us all about UFOs and alien spacecraft that redefine the laws of physics if not economics, and in there somewhere will be the answers to all the supersonic issues. Of course the alliance will be with Area 51 not United.

  8. “I wonder if Elon Musk would like to pick up the pieces?” Not likely.

    Remember, he already has his own high speed globe hopping machine in the works. One of the planned uses for his Starship is to operate sub-orbital flights between distant cities like New York and Hong Kong or Singapore by launching it into space where they can go well beyond Mach 2 or 3, arriving in an hour or less. And, by going into space, he avoids all that nasty CO2 and water vapor in the upper atmosphere to attract the ire of the climate change crowd. Plus, you don’t emit a sonic boom in outer space.

    Best of all, he actually has a working prototype (almost) with plans to reach space and start reentry testing by the end of this year. Whether or not he gets the commercial version in service, he is going to have the Starship operational far sooner than Boom expects their plane will be ready. After all, he is planning to send one to the moon in less than 5 years. Maybe United should be making a deal with him instead.

  9. In 1974, I went to the SST Museum in Kissimmee, Fl. They had the mockup of the Super Sonic Transport that was going to be built in the US. It had the fuselage and one wing. The project had been abandon and someone had built the museum. The museum finally went out of business and the building was bought by a church. They had chairs set up for the parishioners and the SST in the background. They were trying to sell the SST because they needed the space. Some time I think in the 1990’s, I was driving down Route 3 in Florida from the Kennedy Space Center to Merritt Island and along side the road at a salvage yard I spotted the SST cut into about 4 big pieces. The SST and the Concord are gone, Aerion is all done and Boom Supersonic I guess we will have to wait and see.

  10. Boom’s claim is that their product price will facilitate fares no higher than business class. (As best I understand from its poor website it is not luxury seating because trip lengths are relatively short. 4.5 hours Seattle-Tokyo, spaced out seating would facilitate lay-flat ability at a cost for longer flights, it is only two seats wide and claims first-class seat width. I doubt the gee whiz factor will provide enough business for airliners to make a profit, so flying experience and price are key on top of operational reliability.)

    Boom’s claim is that modern technology keeps production cost down.

    For speed, Boom will travel a bit faster than the Concorde, just below a steep rise in drag or efficiency.

    One of the huge changes supersonic wannabes including Boom encountered was the need to add a third engine, I understand to get enough thrust to handle remote/oceanic if on engine resigns, and to reduce noise airports. (Some of Boom’s web pages do not yet show the third engine, it looks as though the demonstrator does.)

    Indeed, Boom is working on a technology demonstrator, for want of a better word, it is not the airliner itself but a scaled machine (had tandem pilot seating but newer web pages appear to show parallel – shorter side windows and dual windshields). Should fly ‘any day now’, to borrow a software phrase Blake Scholl is probably familiar with.

    Boom has had airline customers since early days, I presume that will give them some feedback on cabin and operational factors. It also has an advisor in something like ‘human-centered design’.

    As for lack of further investor interest for some projects, possible reasons include that the field is not considered attractive or is considered risky, and lack of confidence in the company’s managers. The number two criteria of renowned VC company Cable and Howse was ‘Can these people follow through?’. Number one was trust.

  11. Alan Klapmeier had passion. I was talking with him about 25 years ago in the midst of developing the SR20. On the topic of what was the biggest challenge to certification he replied, “Raising the money.” And once it was certificated, the need for more money didn’t go away.

    Aviation breeds lots of dreamers, but most can’t deal with the economics of an industry that is very capital intensive chasing a very small market. For investors, there are a lot of other places to make money with a lot less risk. There’s no quick buck in aviation. It’s a long game with small margins.

    • I like to say that airplane designs are like restaurants – everyone wants to have their own.

      Witness the ‘homebuilt’ industry, with people modifying other people’s designs to get some advantage (back country use seems popular).

      OTOH Van’s seems to progress in considered steps, with attention to sales. A recent article explained why it introduced a newer model – he considered that many people wanted to take spouse along on trips, not just play at aerobatics near home. Started 50 years ago, company now owned by the employees with Mr. Van… still involved.
      Murphy’s line advanced in steps, but Darryl is aging and wanted to sell. Sales are now split off to Patterson Aerosales. (Company started 35 years ago.)
      Both serious operations with volume production practices, Murphy is more oriented to bush flying which suits his location with a province full of mountains to the north, but this model is interesting:

  12. Sell the sizzle not the steak has been a sales mantra for decades. It a actually works if you are a purveyor of dead cow parts for human consumption, but aviation requires you actually have to deliver really hard technology. The technology is always hard because, as was pointed out the laws of physics rule.

    I would argue Aerion was always just sizzle, the marketing kind I mean. Russ is right it never had the the burning, won’t back down, won’t give up leader that forces aviation to new heights.

    Aerion is what Boeing is now. If Aerion was Boeing 30 years ago we would be reading a flight test report in next months Flight Global magazine….