The $2bn supersonic question

There is interest in supersonic business jets, no doubt. The question is whether anyone will build one anytime soon. And the next question always is: who would buy one?

At $2 billion to develop an SSBJ and $80 million to buy one, these are good questions.

Gulfstream and Dassault are studying SSBJs. Even Cessna is interested, as it builds the fastest civil aircraft flying – the Mach 0.92 Citation X. But all the established players have other priorities. Bombardier’s next bizjet is a Challenger replacement, Cessna is looking at a large-cabin jet, Dassault is developing its super mid-size Future Falcon, and Gulfstream is working on the ‘Fat Five’ (or G600, or G6000).

Europe’s HiSAC - will it stay a study? (Flight art by Tim Bicheno-Brown)So all the interest is being generated by two outsiders bankrolled by private money. Aerion is backed by billionaire Robert Bass and Supersonic Aerospace International by money bequeathed by late Gulfstream founder Allen Paulson.

Each is trying to assemble an industrial consortium to build its aircraft. But in this industry it is rare for a manufacturer to buy in a design. The only pertinent example is Canadair, which bought a paper design from Bill Lear and produced the Challenger. And it is a good example, with more than 700 built so far plus hundreds of CRJ derivatives.

Because brand loyalty rules in this game, both Aerion and SAI need to get one of the big players on their team. But these are companies that guard jealousy their ability to turn customer desires into new products. How likely are they to adopt an outside design?

Aerion%20PAS07.jpg Smoother ride for Aerion?

Aerion and SAI each have something to offer. Aerion has proprietary supersonic natural laminar flow technology that allows its aircraft to cruise subsonically over land as efficiently it does supersonically over water – neatly sidestepping the sonic boom issue. SAI has a low-boom aircraft designed by the famed Skunk Works, and the promise of being able to cruise supersonically, quietly, over land – the holy grail of SST designers.

Each also has its challenges. Aerion has yet to demonstrate conclusively it can achieve the extent of laminar flow needed to deliver its performance promises. SAI needs the US to lift its ban on supersonic flight over land to make its QSST economically attractive.

No boom, no worries? SAI’s Skunk Works-designed QSST

But both continue to talk to the OEMs. Something is encouraging the investors to pay for continued refinement of the designs. Aerion sounds confident of a launch in 2008. It may just be optimism. Or there may indeed be serious interest.

Who will pay $80 million for an SSBJ? Fractional-ownership companies, for one. As NetJets has found with the Citation X, speed sells – especially when the cost is shared. And there will always be individuals for whom $80 million is not an obstacle.

But unless they can get a “name” to market and support the aircraft, I doubt either Aerion or SAI can get far. There may be a number of tier one suppliers ready to be risk-sharing partners, but without one of the known bizjet brands on their SSBJ they would always be outsiders.

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