New Rules Coming to Allow Supersonic Flights, London in 3 Hours and Tokyo in 5

Fifteen years ago frequent flyers took advantage of an amazing deal to fly the Concorde for ~ $1100 roundtrip:

  • Buy 21 subscruptions to Inside Flyer magazine, earning 2500 Starwood points for each purchase
  • Transfer those Starwood points to Qantas at 1:2 (with bonus, 20,000 Starwood points yielded 50,000 Qantas points back then)
  • Qantas used to let you book Concorde for the same price as British Airways first class. Shortly thereafter Qantas increased the cost of premium cabin awards as much as 92%.

This was after Concorde’s one and only crash in 2000 but before its last flight in 2003.

Air France flight AF4590 punctured a tire running over a piece of metal from a Continental DC-10 that had taken off before it. The tire exploded, and rubber from the tire hit the plane’s fuel tank and caused a fire. With only one operational engine the plane couldn’t gain altitude.

Since the retirement of Concorde there’s been no supersonic commercial air travel. It had competitors – the Soviet Tupolov nicknamed Konkordski, and the Boeing 2707 SST which was never completed. The first production version of the Tupolov Tu-144 crashed at the Paris Air Show in 1973, supposedly the plane was built based on stolen planes from the French and Americans but they had been fed fake plans.

It’s amazing that Concorde entered commercial service as long ago as 1976 yet its Mach 2 speeds haven’t been matched by new aircraft since. But Concorde took about 8 times as much fuel per passenger mile as a conventional jet, and the sonic booms it generated created backlash from voters.

Only one U.S. airline ever operated Concordes — Braniff leased planes from British Airways and Air France and flew domestically in 1979 and 1980 at subsonic speeds from Dallas to Washington Dulles where BA and Air France crews would take over for the onward journey to London and Paris.

Supersonic travel is banned over the U.S. Period. There aren’t noise limits that technology can work towards. Instead, use of the technology over land no matter how quiet is simply against FAA regulations.

A July 2011 FAA presentation indicated an openness to revisiting these rules although one can expect significant lobbying against this — not just from noise opponents but from airlines that don’t wish to invest in the technology.

As a result of flight bans over land you can fly New York – London or San Francisco – Tokyo, but not New York – Tokyo (without giving up the speed advantage while flying over land).

However US regulations are about to loosen to allow it. New FAA proposed rules are expected to be unveiled by December.

Lockheed Martin Corp. last month won a $247.5 million contract from NASA to develop a quieter supersonic aircraft. Aerion Corp., a business jet startup backed by Texas billionaire Robert Bass, and Boom Technology Inc., a Colorado startup, are among companies developing planes capable of flying above the speed of sound.

Boom’s play is expected to fly Mach 2.2 or 10% faster than Concorde. It’s striking that after 50 years they’re only looking at 10% more speed and a ‘30% gain in efficiency’. That’s a real testament to what was created, economic efficiencies aside, in the 1960s.

With advances in jet engines, and new composite materials, it may be possible to generate the efficiencies needed to make supersonic commercial travel viable with planes in flight by the mid-2020s. Expect range just over 5000 miles and seating for 45 – 55 business class seats. But there are still big technological hurdles..

As long as supersonic travel is more expensive than subsonic, the market will be limited. And limited markets make it tough to recoup development and acquisition costs. Airlines have a hard time making money operating only a couple of planes of a type. The plane needs to be capable of flying long distances, fuel efficiently, and large numbers of passengers in order to be economical on a large scale.

Otherwise the market has to be able to support fares significantly higher than for subsonic transport. The ultimate question is: how much is shaving 3.5 hours off of a transatlantic flight worth, and to how many people?

In 10 years cars will drive themselves, and our kids will ask vexingly did people really used to drive themselves, and how was that possible without having accidents all the time? And in 10 years we may be flying across the Atlantic in 3 hours and across the Pacific in 5 hours.

One barrier to all of this has been the US federal government, and NIMBY-like concerns about noise (and sometimes astroturf lobbying that looks like noise concern funded by incumbent airlines). If the US didn’t change its rules it could just be left behind. Japan Airlines invested in Boom, and you could imagine Tokyo – Sydney, Tokyo – Singapore, and Tokyo – Vancouver flights without crossing land until arrival.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Remember when we used to innovate for the sake of innovation? We have very few free thinkers and developers like that anymore…everyone is concerned with making investment money back. Concorde was able to innovate because people wanted to see it work, not because people necessarily wanted to make a buck. And now our archaic laws hold things back as well, worried about how life will change if we allow innovation to happen.

    Bring it on, I’ll be in line to fly with Boom or Aerion or Lockheed or whoever decides to build this thing. And, sadly, it’s not all completely new innovation. But either way I’ll fly it…I was the kid who sat in an AF ROTC Commander’s office and listened intently as he described flying the Blackbird, jealous of his Mach 3+ Club certificate hanging on his wall. Let’s get things going, hurrah for innovation for the sake of changing the world!

  2. The name, Boom, is terrible from a PR standpoint when lobbying to relax restrictions based on noise complaints.

  3. Back in mid-80s Concorde did a charter flight between the West Coast and Honolulu. It was two hours flat including a victory loop over Waikiki. I remember seeing it and it was impressive.

  4. @Rico: Boom was the only name available. Sonic has been taken by, of all things, an eatery that caters to customers with cars. Forget the PR over noise nuisance, if they ever have an air disaster, they will seriously wish they were named PanAm or Eastern or anything besides Boom.

    @Jamieo: West Coast to Honolulu or Alaska is the obvious best use for Supersonic travel. Do we know what the operating cost per hour is expected to be for this plane?

  5. Oh oh. Cue Mike Boyd disdain (that said I’ll read anything he writes).

    Mewonders if he’s an investor in Boom as well.

  6. “a real testament to what was created in the sixties ” If you start studying aircraft design and development the fifties as well as the sixties was an era of very impressive progress . Reading about the development of the U-2 and the SR-71 I was astounded by the knowledge developed in seemingly a few short years .
    When there is a new supersonic airliner I’ll just have to save enough to buy that ticket !

  7. 1) In 10 years cars will drive themselves….

    No they won’t. They won’t even succeed.

    2) our kids will ask vexingly did people really used to drive themselves, and how was that possible without having accidents all the time?

    No. they won’t again. Tell that to the dead woman in Arizona due to a “self-driving” car, or the recent Tesla accident and deaths. Uber won’t be around in 10 years though. And in 10 years, cell phones will be banned from ALL airplanes, and Twitter and social media like Facebook will be shutdown.

    3) And in 10 years we may be flying across the Atlantic in 3 hours and across the Pacific in 5 hours.

    Unfortunately, no we won’t. Maybe there will be a new 787 that will cost half of what it costs now, but the time length won’t change. And we won’t be on Mars in 10 years, and we won’t be sitting in Elon Musk’s Hyper-poops either. Only the new magnetic train in Japan will be fully operational by then.

    Get over it Gary, you’r left-winged “innovation through the theft of others” attitude is dismissed.

  8. @leef33, that’s not how trademark & copyright laws work. By that token, the “Sonic” name could not have been used by an eatery, since it’s used by SEGA for its videogame character.

  9. @Gary
    Your link to “frequent flyers took advantage of an amazing deal to fly the Concorde for ~ $1100 roundtrip” is not working.

  10. Luddites like @Dylan Gary will always try to prevent progress and poo-pooh innovation and advancement. Why not go back to your cave and cover yourself with leaves since you are so afraid of the world and so afraid of change, you ignorant losers. These are the people that screamed “No flying machines!” about 120 years ago because of all the crashes as various inventors tried to find their way to success, finally coming to fruition with the Wright Brothers. All progress comes from trial-and-error. Of course, Gary’s prognoses will eventually come true. Maybe not at his exact timetable but they will someday be the norm. Calling Gary “left-winged” of course, gives up the game. This particular Luddite is just another hater, afraid of his own shadow and calling others out for daring to believe, like one of the great conservatives of the 20th Century, Walt Disney, who knew that progress was the answer to bettering mankind.

  11. I won’t argue with vigor that Dylan Gary is not a Luddite or that ” left wing “innovation through the theft of others ” ” makes any sense at all . I am concerned that he seems terribly depressed , overwhelmingly pessimistic . I have heard all these kind of pronouncements many times : “Nothing is going to work.” There’s no use trying.” “There is nothing you can do about it.” “Might as well give up. ”
    Dylan, seriously , there are meds that will help . This is not a derogatory comment . You have to look for ways to be more positive . Prozac ( for one) just makes that a little easier .
    There are also some situations to avoid , some things and even some people you have to kick out of your life for self preservation.
    Good Luck

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