The need for speed
For busy executives, bankers and the rich and famous travelling between London and New York, the removal of Concorde from commercial service in 2003 was a major blow.
For all its technical advancements and achievements, Concorde was a time machine. Air France and British Airways both introduced transatlantic services to Washington on the same day in 1976, choreographing their simultaneous touchdowns on opposite runways at Dulles airport. Washington was the first US destination, as the Port Authority of New York and Newark had banned Concorde from landing at its airports several months before.
If you flew from London you could arrive in Washington an hour before you left, from Paris it was longer. Both Air France and British Airways timed their flights in the morning so effectively that you could wake up in London, fly to Washington and still be able to work a full day there. The return flight wasn’t as attractive due to time zone changes, but there was always the option of sleeping your way back across the Atlantic in the first class cabin on a regular airliner.
The list of airlines that placed options or letters of intent for the aircraft was impressive. In the US there was Pan Am, Continental and United. Elsewhere there was Iran Air, Japan Airlines, and even five aircraft for China.
But Concorde’s advantage was also its downfall. To fly twice the speed of sound you have to break the metaphorical sound barrier. Break the sound barrier and you create a sonic boom, a wave of pressure that travels outwards (actually two, the second as the tail of the aircraft passes through). This automatically blacklisted Concorde from flying over land, as sonic booms have been known to break windows at ground level when a supersonic aircraft passes overhead. This immediately limited the routes that Concorde could operate on to those either completely, or at least mostly, over oceans.
There have been several attempts to relaunch Concorde, but none ever had the chance of working. But in 2017, 48 years after the first Concorde flight, there is now a lot of talk about Supersonic aircraft coming back. Virgin founder Richard Branson has announced Boom (Branson’s backing gets lots of coverage but does not mean as much inside aviation).
The most advanced of these is the Aerion AS2, especially since Airbus announced that they are involved in the design, manufacture and certification of the aircraft.
The AS2 gets around the sonic boom issue by flying subsonic speeds over populated land. The company’s research into natural laminar flows mean that the aircraft can cruise comfortably at Mach .95, while its maximum speed breaks the sound barrier at Mach 1.5.
The aircraft will hold a maximum of 12 passengers and have a maximum range of 4,750nm / 8,797km at Mach 1.4, or 5,300nm / 9,816km at Mach 0.95, which would allow the AS2 to reach all of Europe from the east coast of the US, and as far south as Buenos Aires.
Time costs money, and buying yourself more time certainly won’t be cheap. The AS2s tag of $120 million is roughly double that of the current top of the range business jets.
The price tag and the fact that you are only able to fly supersonic over land might make you think that the market size for the AS2 will be limited. The reality is no one really knows. Two weeks ago at our conference in London some 7% of delegates with large cabin clients were 100% sure that their clients would want a supersonic jet. But this is a small part of the total. Then again, OEMs underestimated the size of the super mid-size, large cabin and ultra long range aircraft.
I know that some of the people reading this are huge supporters of supersonic aircraft. Others think it is a pipe dream. If you feel strongly please feel free to vote here – or reply to this email.
I am also happy to discuss it with you face to face. Just give me five hours (and a few years) and I will fly to you wherever you are.