Investing In Supersonic Travel: The Next Big Thing?

Wealth

November 16, 2017 | BY Richard Lord

Get to know the aviation companies bringing back supersonic travel

One of the most instantly recognisable aircrafts to ever take to the skies, Concorde, flew commercially for 27 years until 2003. It remains history’s only viable supersonic jet service.

There was a problem with Concorde, though: it wasn’t very good. Only 14 Concordes ever flew, and they were all made to the same 1960s design. They were prohibitively expensive, only making a slim profit because their massive development costs were written off by their Anglo-French owners, and they made a hell of a noise. 

 

An original British Airways Concorde in flight (Photo: Courtesy of British Airways)

“There was a lot of design by committee, spread across two countries,” says Samuel Hammond, a policy analyst at the US think tank Niskanen Center and author of a recent study on the viability of supersonic transportation, which found a potential global market for about 450 jets.

“It was driven less by technical considerations than by diplomatic and political ones,” he adds. With the deepest irony, the project was originally part of a charm offensive from the UK, which wanted to join the Common Market—the forerunner of the European Union it now wants to leave.

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With the death of Concorde, supersonic transportation went out of fashion. The aviation industry has instead focused on making its planes more efficient, so they can fly longer distances rather than faster.

There was also the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144, which made a grand total of 55 passenger flights in 1978 and 1979 before it was retired. As well as being expensive and loud, it was also dangerously unreliable.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, is a fan of supersonic travel. (Photo: Courtesy of Virgin)

But now, supersonic transport could be ready for a second coming. “We’re seeing the comeback of supersonic because of technological breakthroughs,” says Hammond.

Specifically, advances in lightweight materials such as carbon fibre, improved engine technology and computer modelling are allowing for better designs that can evolve more easily. 

Established aviation companies such as Lockheed Martin—which has a partnership with NASA—are working on supersonic jets, but they face competition from a number of start-ups including market leader Boom Technology, which is working on a 55-passenger jet and counts Virgin Group among its investors—Richard Branson himself was something of a Concorde fanatic.

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There's also Aerion Corporation, which has support from Airbus in developing its AS2 business jet, and Spike Aerospace, which hopes to launch its S-512 business jet by 2023. 

“A lot of the entrepreneurial spirit behind this comes from people experiencing the pain of long-distance trips,” says Hammond. “Hong Kong would be perfectly situated for it. You could wake up in San Francisco, have a meeting in Hong Kong and fly back for dinner.”

NASA's Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) X-plane is currently being developed in partnership with Lockheed Martin

Business jets, a market prepared to tolerate high costs, would appear to be the perfect application for supersonic technology. But their development is held back by the longstanding ban on supersonic jets flying over land, instituted by the US Federal Aviation Administration in 1973 and followed by pretty much everywhere else.

“The ban did affect private development,” says Hammond. “It had the unintended consequence of totally cutting off the development of business jets; 75 percent of their airtime is over land.”

There is some prospect of it being overturned, though, as a year ago there was no conversation and now, it’s on the agenda. If an agreement is reached, Hammond believes it should be about a five-year process.

“Once it happens there’ll be a frenzy of investment. It’ll be a bit like driverless cars. Companies like Boom will push the established aviation players into having their own programmes.” 

Customers, of course, might do the same once they’ve seen what supersonic planes can do. “Once it’s as fast to fly from San Francisco to Tokyo as it is to New York, people are going to say: ‘What’s up with this?’”

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