Yesterday’s Tech Can Help Restore Supersonic Travel

Beatles-era technology might help us to use supersonic travel to follow the sun. But I've got a feeling most of us will wait.

Supersonic XB-1

The technology to build supersonic airliners has been around since the Beatles were still playing together, but it has been more than a decade since the last passenger jumped the pond faster than news that Ed Sullivan had booked the Fab Four.

So what factors need to come together to allow day-trippers to shuttle between London’s Abbey Road and Central Park’s Strawberry Fields memorial once again? Really, only two: a need for speed and money to burn.

There are a lot more rich people in the world than there were back in 1969, when the Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-144 and the Anglo-French Concorde made their first supersonic test flights. The Concorde entered commercial service in 1976 and flew until 2003. Back in the U.S.S.R., the market for ultra-fast passenger travel never got far off the ground. The Tu-144 made only 55 passenger flights before it was reduced to freight-only service in 1978 and grounded completely a few years later.

These days money can’t buy love or a ticket to ride on a supersonic passenger jet. But several companies are willing to bet that by the mid-2020s, there will be enough well-heeled passengers willing to pony up big bucks (or euros, or yuan) to make business-class supersonic travel cool again.

Boom Technology Inc., based in Denver, has secured backing from Japan Airlines and Virgin Group in its quest to build a 55-seat jet aimed at business travelers, which will be capable of speeds up to Mach 2.2 (a little more than twice the speed of sound). The company hopes to have its aircraft in the air by 2023. This is an ambitious timeline, though the company is considering adapting existing engines to expedite the process. It plans to launch a test flight of a smaller prototype by the end of 2018.

Blake Scholl, Boom’s founder and CEO, told The Wall Street Journal that the main enabler for the company’s plans is carbon-fiber material used for airframes. Compared to conventional aluminum, carbon-fiber is lighter, stronger and does not expand when heated. His company’s design would also make changes to the jet’s size and shape compared to the Concorde.

This shape change, along with a planned cruising altitude of 60,000 feet (similar to Concorde’s), is in part designed to mitigate the window-rattling sonic boom once associated with supersonic travel. For now, faster-than-sound travel for civilians is mostly restricted to trips over an ocean since many countries – including the United States – ban such flights over land.

Still, Boom’s leaders remain optimistic. Nor are they the only ones. Aerion Corp. is working with Lockheed Martin to develop supersonic passenger jets of their own, and Spike Aerospace Inc. is exploring supersonic jets for the private market. All three companies face not only airspace restrictions, but questions of fuel economy. Aerion, unlike Boom, is engineering a new engine, but proposes a top speed of only Mach 1.4. Spike is aiming for Mach 1.6.

I would love to see a successful supersonic aircraft make a comeback. At least for baby boomers like me, a transoceanic journey at 60,000 feet – nearly twice as high as most subsonic jetliners – is as close to space travel as most of us are going to get. Besides, aging bodies just don’t like to hold a sitting position for, say, the 11 hours it takes to fly from San Francisco to Shanghai.

Private jet travel at supersonic speed is almost surely an idea whose time has arrived. It is a niche market compared to commercial aviation, but it is a market in which price is no object. Growing wealth in places like Shanghai has also created demand for ultrafast travel to places like Australia and the American West Coast.

I am more skeptical about the economics of supersonic travel in the commercial market. Its primary audience would probably be business travelers. But these days, there are fewer reasons to travel for work at all when we have so many other communication tools at our disposal. Shaving three hours off a flight from the U.S. Northeast to western Europe just is not a big enough deal to justify a huge cost increase for most travelers, even in business class. While Boom expects per-seat costs will be as much as 75 percent lower than the Concorde, today’s travelers will be comparing costs to slower traditional flights, a calculation in which supersonic options will undoubtedly run significantly more expensive.

Cutting six or eight hours, or more, from a Pacific route would be more meaningful. But the fixed reality of time zones, jet lag and the international date line will make it hard to use the saved time for anything commercially useful. And this assumes that the next generation of supersonic planes will have not only the speed, but also the fuel range, to cross vast ocean distances at such high speeds.

The potential market for supersonic travel is much bigger today than it was back in the days of long hair and Nehru jackets, but the technology that made it possible yesterday may remain impractical today, as it still faces many of the same constraints. If, in the end, we fail to get back to the age of supersonic travel, I suppose I could cry instead. I don’t want to spoil the party, however, so I’ll just let it be.

About Larry M. Elkin 558 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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