supersonic will soon be back, but it won’t be big

Sometimes technology seems to go backwards.  For example, the US used to operate the shuttle which was a relatively advanced reusable spaceplane.  Now NASA has nothing, and the replacement vehicle in development has more in common with the Apollo or Soyuz space capsules than it does with the shuttle.

Likewise, Concorde first flew in 1976.  Here we are over 40 years later and every single commercially viable passenger plane of any size is exclusively subsonic.  I’ll save my thoughts pf NASA’s failures for another day.  Today I want to focus on supersonic.  More and more in the news you see that several companies are trying to dive back into supersonic.

But first, what happened after 1976?  In short, supersonic failed for a number of reasons:

– It was never cost effective: Concorde burned a lot of fuel, had a large maintenance footprint, and could never get the cost per seat / seat vacancy ratios correctly to turn a consistent profit.

– Development: Because of the cost considerations, nobody saw a reason to develop a successor to Concorde.  By the end of the 20th Century, Concorde was a 20 year old design and the airframes were reaching the end of usable service.

– 2000: The Air France crash was the end of the road.  Adding up the cost and service life against the reality of a full crash was the end of the program.

And there we’ve sat for decades.  But now folks are willing to try again.  Why:

a) Air travel and airline technology has become so advanced as to be scary in terms of safety. Western airlines have a safety record that’s downright miraculous. Lawnmowers kill more people each year.

b) Modern super fuel efficient engines combined with advanced computing might be close to cracking the code on the cost problem. When you add in the composites that make the newer airframes strong and lighter I think they might cross the threshold on turning a profit per flight.

c) Humanity is more obsessed with time. In the business world, seconds matter whereas when Concorde last flew perhaps only minutes mattered. Think of it, in 2000 smartphones didn’t even exist.  The world has gotten faster, and so I think folks will be far more inclined to put down the cash when they’re staring at the reality of a flight time that gets cut in half.

But will it work?  Well, let’s examine the most realistic commercial supersonic venture.

Boom Supersonic has already booked aircraft orders, 10 from Virgin, and 20 from JAL.  The expectation is they’re flying commercially by 2025.  Its jets will seat 55 passengers, go across the Atlantic in half the current time, and cost approximately $5K per ticket.  Boom claims to have cracked the code on fuel efficiency and subduing the impact of the dreaded sonic boom.

My conclusions:

1) I searched online, trying to book over two months in advance, Heathrow to JFK with a one week dwell.  The cost for an Economy seat is $400.  Boom’s jet is single aisle, single seat each side.  To me, this is an exclusively Business / First Class jet.  Economy does not apply. For a Business flight it’s all over the place.  You can go on TAP Portugal for $2.1K.  Air France is $6K.  United is $7K  To fly BA is $7.5K.

So let’s get something straight.  If Boom states that it’s $5K per seat they either mean the cost to them and/or they’re fibbing on future prices.  When all the major carriers are already charging Atlantic rides for well over $5K for subsonic, then my back of the napkin math says a Boom supersonic seat costs closer to $10K.

So right off the bat you’re looking at a ticket that’s 20 times more expensive between Economy and supersonic.  Thus, to declare that the supersonic ticket is already in the realm of the super-rich is an understatement.  Already it’s the same high-risk niche market Concorde had to struggle with.

2) I don’t care what Boom or others claim, the sonic boom problem is a major problem.  Even if Boom can produce a severely muffled boom, they still can’t break physics, there will still be a boom.   And if there’s a sonic boom, it’s going to be regulated.  If it’s regulated, it’s not going to be easy.

All supersonic has to do is lightly tap one skyscraper apartment window in Manhattan and there will be people up in arms about how the boom is giving them phantom headaches.  Then the lawyers come out of the bushes and it’s a gigantic mess.  Can Boom and other companies get around this by only going supersonic over water, sure.  But in the end as with Concorde, the sonic boom problem is not going to be a rounding error.  It’s a big problem.

3) Think about the turnover rate of a standard subsonic jet.  Take a 737 flying inside the US.  On any given day, one jet is expected to fly over half-a-dozen flights.  They have to turnover at the gate in less than an hour and get back in the air.  They have to not seriously break over hundreds of hours of constant flight.  They have to do it at the safety rate of zero crashes.  Can Boom or other companies crack the code on this, keep the aircraft available enough to fly again and again to generate profit, and do it safely every single fight?  I think they can definitely do it.  But I’m not sure they can do it and consistently make money.  New technology is hard to master.  And going supersonic on a completely new airframe isn’t going to be an easy thing to do.

You need only look at the development hell Airbus and Boeing have gone through with their latest subsonic jets to realize how hard building airplanes is.  Going supersonic is going to generate a whole new level of difficulty.  Plus, Boom is a company that doesn’t have a sustained record of success with previous aircraft models.  Look at what happened with the Bombardier CSeries.  That jet crashed out in development hell because Bombardier made too many mistakes.  They had to sell out the airframe to Airbus for like $1 to avoid bankruptcy.  And the CSeries is a pretty basic modern subsonic jet, and it still was impossible for Bombardier to succeed.  I’m not sure I think companies like Boom truly understand how hard their task will be to develop and build supersonic without going bankrupt in the process.

In closing, I think we’ll see supersonic return and soon.  But given that the passenger market is still only the exclusive rich, the remaining associated problem of profit risk, and my concerns about technology development, I think the end result is supersonic is going to be a very, very small footprint by say 2030.  Only a handful of jets will fly and the companies that run them will be scraping by paycheck to paycheck on cost.  In the end, I don’t think supersonic is going to be viable for major airlines on anything but a small scale.  It’ll be a niche market, or perhaps become a major chunk of the private jet market.  But large scale from major airlines?  I just don’t see it.

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But who knows, maybe I’m wrong?

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