Economics of Supersonic

Aerion’s shut down brings Concorde’s ceased memories, and yet other optimistic names are paving a way for supersonic travel in the decade ahead

Issue: 07-2021By Ayushee ChaudharyPhoto(s): By Exosonic, Lockheed Martin
Exosonic, a low-boom supersonic aircraft manufacturer is building a Mach 1.8 Presidential Jet with a 5,000 nautical mile range

Supersonic flights have always managed to infuse enthusiasm among aviation industry stalwarts and the common people alike. Earlier this year, supersonic garnered an extra layer of attention as one of the most awaited supersonic jets, Aerion AS2 shut down before its production could even begin. Additionally, on a contrary note, United Airlines signed an agreement with Boom supersonic to purchase 15 of its Overture airliners. Both of these major events have drawn focus on digging deeper into the economics of the supersonic flight and how the future looks for the sonic era.

The closure of Aerion AS2 has highlighted the challenges to sustain the maintenance of supersonic aircraft and the financial ladder that it offers to be climbed including the fuel efficiency concerns. While Aerion AS2 was planned as a business jet, supersonic airliners for commercial use are also on the way. However, the cost of these flights also restricts the reach of the aircraft to the luxury market which further limits the passenger count, arising constant concerns.

SIGNIFICANT SONIC SHUTDOWNS

Aerion’s sudden announcement to shut down AS2 was a shock for the industry as the supersonic business jet had booked orders and had managed to secure the backing of major aerospace names such as Boeing, GE Aviation, Rosen Aviation, Spirit AeroSystems, etc. The company had even achieved the wind tunnel validation recently with the AS2 amassing the equivalent of 78,000 nautical miles flown. Aerion had ensured its confidence that the combination of advanced digital modelling and physical model-based wind tunnel testing will allow Aerion to fast-track development program ahead of 2023 production start. However, the announcement of shutting down evidently showed that none of these was sufficient as Aerion could not secure the much-needed new investment to bring the aircraft to market. Aerion began its journey in 2003, the same year that Concorde stopped services. Almost two decades after Concorde ceased operations, it still holds the title of being the only commercial supersonic aircraft.

On March 2, 1969, Concorde 001 took its maiden flight. Eventually 20 aircraft were produced, and 14 entered service with British Airways (BA) and Air France. While Concorde achieved the feat of being in service for 27 years, it was not without concerns. The aircraft was not allowed to fly at its high speed over land due to the sonic boom which meant limited routes. In addition to that, the development of the jet ran over budget many times. A planned $130 million budget ended up reaching $2.8 billion in development costs. Looking at the other side of the spectrum, one-way tickets with BA from London to Washington Dulles by the late 1990s, were as high as $6,000. So even with the enormous cost of Concorde’s development, it is believed to have been of considerable profit for British Airways in its final years of operation.

While the fleet was already ageing and proving somewhat inefficient, the crash of an Air France flight in July of 2000 with no survivors, significantly aided the cease of Concorde in 2003. The shaken confidence as well as the additional cost spent in ensuring safety improvements and increased maintenance, all added to the challenges in keeping the Concorde in the sky.

NASA is designing and building the X-59 research aircraft, a piloted, single-seat supersonic X-plane

AS2’s collapse has again brought some of these concerns into focus. Aerion had expected a cost of $4 billion in total to develop AS2. Though Aerion had almost managed the sonic barrier and the sustainability concerns for regulators and environmentalists, it could not secure the money sufficiently well more so with the pandemic that has left the global industry in a financial furnace. AS2 was a certified aircraft to run on 100 percent engineered hydrogen/carbon captured fuel and was the first supersonic aircraft that did not require afterburning engines and the first Boomless Cruise supersonic aircraft in history. Furthering sustainability operations (being the talk of the town), Aerion had also planned to integrate supersonic services with urban air mobility networks, carrying passengers to and from long-haul flights on eVTOL (electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft and yet it could not see the light of the day.

The ceasing of Aerion AS2’s operation has certainly come as a disappointment for the industry, hitting turbulence in the plans of supersonic airliners, but has also given a reality check of the cost that is involved in upgrading to the supersonic level. Aerion’s partners including Boeing and GE Aviation too had to navigate through the economical hurdle with layoffs as lockdowns across the world ceased operations.

SUPERSONIC FUTURE

Though Aerion AS2 leaves a major blank space in the supersonic market, there are other players that are still keeping the hope alive. Some of them have been mentioned below:

American company Boom’s sonic dreams seem to be on track for now with the United Airlines deal and the XB-1’s prototype unveiled last year. Boom’s Overture can cruise at 60,000 feet and aims to bring supersonic travel by 2029, while the XB-1 is also progressing, paving the way for mainstream supersonic travel by demonstrating the key technologies for safe and efficient high-speed flight. XB-1 is fitted with three J85-15 engines, designed by General Electric, which will provide more than 50,000 newtons of thrust, allowing the plane to fly at breakthrough supersonic speeds Boom Supersonic.

Exosonic, a low-boom supersonic aircraft manufacturer is also on an optimistic path. Last year it partnered with the US Air Force’s Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate (PE) to develop a supersonic executive transport. By utilizing Exosonic’s boom softening techniques, the company is building a Mach 1.8 Presidential Jet with a 5,000 nautical mile ranges.

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is designing and building the X-59 research aircraft – a piloted, single-seat supersonic X-plane – with technology that reduces the loudness of a sonic boom to that of a gentle thump. At present, NASA is working with Lockheed Martin Skunk Works of Palmdale, California, to design, build and conduct initial flight testing of the aircraft as part of phase one of the agency’s Low-Boom Flight Demonstration mission.

The spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic had also announced its entry into the supersonic space last year with the first stage design scope for the build of its high speed aircraft design, and the signing of a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding with Rolls-Royce to collaborate in designing and developing engine propulsion technology for high speed commercial aircraft.

Other names like Flexjet, NetJets, even Gulfstream have indicated interest in the supersonic market segment. So, even though one of the most major players of the supersonic industry is going for a pause, there are still many faces taking the supersonic journey and are optimistic for the sonic flight future. Let’s see if they can navigate the scales of sustainability, speed, sonic sound, and finances in a balanced manner to emerge with an unparalleled experience.