The vision of a high-speed, long-range aircraft has caught the public's imagination. But can the airlines afford to fly it?

Guy Norris/SEATTLE

Boeing's "Sonic Cruiser" announcement on 29 March seems to have captured the public imagination with its radical design and promise of high speed having the desired market effect. It has made headlines everywhere, giving the long-lost technological initiative back to Boeing - at least in the public's eye.


Whether the aircraft will catch the imagination of the airlines depends on a variety of factors, most importantly the economics of acquisition and operation.

What appears to be true is that Boeing is showing the airlines that it is prepared to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to the belief that fragmentation and the growth of point-to-point routes is the future, rather than the Airbus view that ultra-large aircraft are the answer to slot congestion.

What are the realities of the marketplace and, just as importantly, the technology needed to deliver such a futuristic, long-range concept? Furthermore, what of today's market?

The move effectively cedes the ultra-high capacity market to Airbus and the A380. Boeing appears to be gambling its long-term commercial airliner dynasty on the growth of an unknown product, for an unknown market, against the historically guaranteed income from cash cows like the Boeing 747.

So what do the airlines think of an aircraft that could cut up to three hours from a transpacific flight? American Airlines, which is thought to be a key member of Boeing's "Working Together 2" focus group on the Cruiser, says the high-speed concept would be useful on transatlantic services which would be up to four hours shorter on a standard rotation. This would effectively allow one extra flight daily from points on the east coast, such as New York.

Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines (SIA) have publicly expressed "high interest" in the idea of a faster, smaller aircraft, despite the historic trend for ever larger capacity airliners in Asia-Pacific. However, like American and United Airlines, which is also expected to be part of the advisory group, all are worried about operating costs. Boeing concedes fuel consumption will be a "little bit higher" based on the use of adapted 777 engines.

Mike Bair, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice-president for business strategy and development, says operating costs "are being designed to be in line with those of today's 767-300. It's not the intention to make this something for which you'd have to charge a premium, though clearly the people flying initially will have a yield advantage."

He believes the availability of the Sonic Cruiser "could and will change the rules because I can envisage it starting to pull out premium traffic. Who knows what impact this might have on other airline markets."

Boeing's study is focused primarily on saving time on longer trips, though it is not ignoring the inherent advantages of a smaller version to a domestic carrier, such as Southwest, which could make better use of a faster aircraft.

The market is ready for the next structural shift in air transport," says Edward Pieniazek, director of consultancy at UK aerospace analysts Airclaims. "There has been no fundamental change in cruise speed for the bulk of air transport for 40 years. Airframes have gone as large as they can [with the A380] and as small as they can [with the regional jets], so what is left, other than to go faster and higher but without the complexities of supersonic travel?

"We assume that Boeing has done its homework, and that the engine technologies and economies work," says Pieniazek. "If they do, we can expect a whole new generation of faster aircraft."

Another key marketing question, and one at the heart of Airbus' arguments for the A380, is the issue of airport slots. Emirates, for one, says the A380 makes more sense at slot-constrained airports like London Heathrow (Flight International, 3-9 April).

But the signals from Airbus remain confused regarding high-speed aircraft. On the one hand commercial affairs vice-president John Leahy says airliners designed to cruise at Mach 0.95 would burn "almost half" as much fuel again in the cruise as a conventional, slower aircraft. He says advantages during the cruise phase would be "minimal" because - at least on medium range routes - the aircraft would spend much of its time climbing or descending, where the cruise speed advantage would be lost.

Meanwhile, Airbus vice-president market forecasts Adam Brown was revealing at a conference in the USA that company engineers were already looking at a concept similar in size to Boeings known as the E-Squared. Describing the idea as "intriguing" Brown said the issue was whether the aircraft would be economic to operate.

Bair says technology is key to the success of the Sonic Cruiser. If airlines want relatively conventional technology they could get the aircraft as early as 2006, he says. The more technology, the longer it will be before entry-into-service.

The biggest single breakthrough - the basic configuration - already appears to be in the bag. "Instead of making a slow aircraft go faster, we have a design for a fast aircraft that goes a bit slower."

The next big breakthrough, and perhaps the toughest of all, will be to get airlines to agree on the ideal size of the initial version. Boeing has focused on 225 seats but the airlines are seeking versions up to 300 passengers.

Source: Flight International