Those who mourn the passing of the Concorde era have cause to do more than mark last week’s anniversary – now a full 40 years ago – of the inauguration of commercial supersonic air service. For there is much cause to hope that NASA is poised to drive forward into a new age of Mach-plus transportation.
As we report this week, money may be forthcoming for NASA to develop a flying X-plane to demonstrate a next-generation speed machine able to break the sound barrier – not of Mach 1, but of the ear-splitting, window-shattering sonic boom.
If NASA ultimately proves an aircraft can be shaped to beat the boom, and if trials go on to show that resultant noise falls below the limit of what people on the ground will tolerate, then maybe – sometime around 2020 or so – aircraft companies can start thinking seriously about developing a successor to Concorde.
The prospects are exciting. If ground-level noise can be muted enough to convince legislators, especially in the USA, to lift the bans on overland supersonic flight that so restricted Concorde, the market for supersonic aircraft might finally break open.
Since Concorde’s day there has been a surge in demand for long-haul air travel. Wealthy people, who certainly value their time, are criss-crossing the globe like never before. Speed looks more than ever like a winning proposition.
Or does it? First, let’s not lose sight of the fact that it was not only noise that did for Concorde. Operating costs were terminal in any normal commercial context. A 2020s version would presumably be far less thirsty of fuel and maintenance, but it’s a certainty that such an aircraft would still be very, very expensive to buy and to operate. In any business, speed costs money – and it usually costs a lot.
But whatever the technical possibilities, the other cause for commercial caution is that the world has changed dramatically since Concorde’s time. Real speed today means email, teleconferencing and advanced satellite communications. Some of those wealthy enough to pay for supersonic transport may choose to do so – but many may still opt for normal first-class travel. Airlines will surely up the competitive ante with ever-more-sumptuous offerings too.
Fast forward to the mid- or late-2020s, when virtual reality technology will have transformed conference calling and the market for business travel. It’s not obvious that the speed of physical travel will have quite the same appeal it did back in the 1970s.