Will supersonic travel boom without its ‘boom’?

A legend in its time, the Concorde brought luxury supersonic travel to those who could afford it, cutting transatlantic flight time in half to three and a half hours, even making it possible for a day trip between Paris or London and New York.

 

Yet its deafening sonic boom disqualified it from travel over land, a serious handicap among many others that made it commercially unviable after nearly thirty years of service.

Today, that sonic boom may be resolved, partly through a NASA research project with the private sector that is developing a new design and new composite materials for the planes. So that ‘boom’, it seems, may become an acceptable ‘thump’, allowing for a new generation of supersonic aircraft to fly over land at a time when a new market is emerging for flight twice or even five times the speed of sound.

“The supersonic sector will still be reserved for a minority of travelers. However, it will become over time a part of the new world of aviation that is clearly developing today.

André Cléroux, Thales Avionic Functions Product Line Director

A market study in 2016 found that as many as 1,300 supersonic aircraft worth $260 Billion would be needed over a ten-year period. Demand from Asia, which never saw the Concorde in commercial service, is one source of the developing demand for supersonic travel over both land and sea, although North America appears still to be the biggest potential market.

So it’s not hard to understand why there are plenty of projects that have been announced. Plans range from ‘business’ jets with 12 to 55 seats flying at Mach 1.6 and Mach 2 to Airbus' concept for a Mach 4.5 travel, using a rocket booster to launch two-hour journeys from New York to London or from London to Shanghai. While the smaller supersonic planes may be ready to fly as early as 2023, hypersonic flights will need decades of development if they are ever to be launched.

Major challenges remain to be tackled. They include optimal choices for design, materials, and motorization for speed, efficiency, safety, and controlled noise levels—all with acceptable fuel costs and emissions at the same time; the Concorde burnt one ton of fuel for each of its seats.

With our experience in avionics, air traffic management and in the digital transformation of connected air travel, Thales is ready to provide the many technologies which the new aircraft will need to succeed in the second supersonic chapter of commercial air travel.

André Cléroux

This article is part of a series of articles published for the Farnborough International Airshow in England, 16-22nd July 2018.