FAA Proposes New Rules To Allow Supersonic Flights, Fly To London in 3 Hours and Tokyo in 5

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

  • Buy 21 subscriptions 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 it’s taken nine years since then to reach a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

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 finally prepared to loosen, at least if the FAA acts after their ‘notice and comment’ period.

The purpose of the noise certification Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (PDF) (NPRM) is to add landing and takeoff noise standards for a certain class of new supersonic airplanes. The NPRM is open for public comment for 90 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register.

This NPRM (PDF) follows a 2019 FAA proposed rule to update the requirements to apply for a special flight authorization for flying above Mach 1 in the United States. The FAA initiated these two proposed rulemakings for manufacturers interested in developing supersonic aircraft.

We may see new jets that can fly Mach 2.2 or 10% faster than Concorde, at best after 50 years we’re only looking at 10% more speed.

With advances in jet engines, and new composite materials, it may be possible to generate the economic efficiencies needed to make supersonic commercial travel viable with planes in flight before the end of the decade.

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 carry 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 are supposed to 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). The U.S. needs to change its rules to avoid being 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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. @Gary

    You’ve run lots of articles about this, and always blame US regulations. For your NYC to Tokyo example, the majority of over land flight would be over Canada! What are their regulations?

  2. There will be economically viable intercontinental passenger service via sub-orbital space travel before there will ever be viable supersonic passenger service again. Supersonic passenger travel is dead.

  3. Concorde cruised at 60,000′. I wonder if higher altitude is possible and if the resulting shock wave/sonic boom would be lessened.

  4. The game changer will be LON to SFO in around 4h of flight time vs the current just under 10h. I’d happily pay a premium for that, avoid the overnight to LON on the way back / fly out to SFO on noon Monday (instead of Saturday or Sunday), and lose the first class flat bed.

  5. I think @Mike nailed it. I don’t buy a need for supersonic travel on 5-7 hour flights … The real differentiator will be on true long haul and ultra long haul flights.

    NY/LON is already a pretty short flight … a significant portion of the door to door time is spent on surface travel and in the airport already, and unless you’re taking choppers to/from the airport AND flying private that’s not going to change with supersonic travel. And flying private subsonically is likely to get you from doorstep to doorstep faster than any commercial supersonic travel.

    Flying from the West Coast to Europe, the US/Europe to Asia, etc in less than half the time would reduce the need for ultra deluxe suite-style seating, though. With significantly more density, the seats wouldn’t necessarily need to cost much more than a current subsonic premium cabin intercontinental flight. That would really only make sense on routes with lots of premium demand, though … LA/SF to London, NY to Tokyo, London to Singapore, etc…

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