Aerion in talks to lift US supersonic flight ban

Aerion AS2

Aerion AS2 flying

Supersonic business jet manufacturer Aerion Corp is in talks with the Federal Aviation Authority about lifting the US ban on supersonic flying over land.

The company is “not overly optimistic” that it will get the change it is looking for in the short term, but says that, if the ban does stay in place, it will not affect the market performance of its AS2 aircraft when it is launched in seven years’ time.

“The fact that supersonic flight is prohibited over the US is an obstacle. We are hopeful that, at some point, there may be some change in the regulation but we are not overly optimistic that it will happen in the short term. If not, our business case assumes there will be no change in the regulation, and our design is very efficient at both sub-supersonic speeds and supersonic speeds.

“So it is a limiting factor, but we’ve taken it into account,” said Aerion’s executive chairman, Brian Barents (pictured below).

He added that, if a change was made “further down the road”, it could encourage more manufacturers to build supersonic business jets. The market is already quite busy – manufacturers such as Spike Aerospace and Boom are developing aircraft, while companies including Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney and GE are involved in projects to provide engines – so, although Barents feels that Aerion has “first mover advantage” as the first company to have entered the market, lifting the US ban could be a double-edged sword.

The US is the only country to ban supersonic flight over land, due to noise pollution concerns. Elsewhere in the world, aircraft can fly at speeds of up to Mach 1.2 over land and at unlimited speed over water. Barents would like to see the US adopt the same policy.

Barents spoke to Corporate Jet Investor after being made executive chairman last month. He was previously co-chairman with Doug Nichols, who continues to lead Aerion’s day-to-day operations, and now oversees the strategy for bringing the AS2 jet to market.

Robert M Bass, chairman of Aerion’s board of directors, said Barents’ appointment strengthened the company by “elevating a singularly prominent industry veteran to further relationships with key decision makers at OEMs, tier-one suppliers, and other critical constituencies”.

Barents, who has been with Aerion since 2004, said the company has made “tremendous progress” during the past year. It announced a deal with GE last Spring, to adapt one of GE’s turbofan engines to use in the AS2 – “It gives us the performance we need and complies with the regulations,” he said – and is continuing discussions with other OEMs and suppliers that will enable the company to move on to certification and into production.

“We have a seven-year development programme [for the AS2], very similar to other projects of its sort. That clock will start ticking as soon as we sign a definite agreement with GE. Hopefully that will happen in the next 60 to 90 days. Five years after that will be the first flight.”

Aerion expects the AS2 to receive certification in 2025. The 11-passenger aircraft has a maximum operating speed of Mach 1.5 over water and Mach 1.2 over land without a sonic boom reaching the ground. It has a range of 5,300 nautical miles, thanks to a natural laminar flow wing developed on conjunction with NASA. Aerion predicts it will reduce trans-Atlantic trips by up to three hours.

Barents is optimistic that there are enough corporations, high net worth individuals and others who want the speed that the AS2 offers – it can travel at almost twice the speed of today’s conventional aircraft – to justify the billions of dollars that have been spent on developing it and to make it a viable product.

“With growing worldwide economic development, there’s clearly a need for long-range travel which lends itself to higher speeds and greater productivity for those people who are using the speed,” he said. “I truly believe there’s a market there for the AS2.

“We’re looking at Mach 1.5 – almost double what conventional aircraft can offer. There are no doubt people out there who would pay for that. We’ve commissioned three studies, and there are independent studies out there too, that show a very clear demand for an airplane of this type. I’m confident in our ability to deliver an airplane with the performance and price that people want.

“Since the recession, the segment of the market that has been strong has been the high-end market – the Bombardier 7000, the Gulfstream 650 etc. It’s been very robust and that’s the market segment that we will be addressing. We’re very bullish on the market. We’re also looking at the potential of Asia, the Middle East. A big segment of our prospective customers will come from high net worth individuals – there’s a lot of growth in that segment. We’re extremely positive about our ability to sell, market and support 36 airplanes a year. It’s a narrow market segment but it will represent a 10% market share of high-end business jets. I’m very optimistic.”

That optimism is partly fuelled by Flexjet’s decision last year to order 20 AS2s – an increase of 100% following a survey of its customers who currently used large aircraft about the value of a supersonic business jet. Barents said: “They were extremely surprised by the results. They originally anticipated ordering ten airplanes but, when they got the reaction of their customers, they decided to order 20 instead.”

Barents anticipates customers for the AS2 coming from large multi-national corporations, high net worth individuals (“who will buy it because they can”) and fractional operators like Flexjet. “This is an aircraft that you won’t use every day, but in situations where you can take advantage of the speed. It won’t take over from 650s but it will be in the same hangar as them – it will complement that fleet. This airplane will complement existing fleets of large airplanes.

“This is the next frontier. Airplanes have been stuck at Mach 0.8. They are larger, they are more comfortable, they go further, but they don’t go faster. There’s a desire for speed if it’s affordable.”

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