The supersonic jet industry has both commercial and business travel applications. The business jet market size alone is expected to have a worth of over $36 billion by 2026, fueled by partnerships and deals such as that between Embraer and SkyWest.
Considering that the jet market has only gone up 10% in speed over the last 60 years, there’s certainly room for improvement in terms of travel times. Supersonic airplanes can connect New York to London in three hours and fifteen minutes and Los Angeles to Sydney in a little less than seven hours. Although questions have been raised about ecological shortcomings and high operating costs, the US government has announced that it’s considering lifting a supersonic jet ban in place since 1973 — an initiative that brought new life to the industry. North America is expected to dominate the supersonic market and witness the highest growth for the period 2020-2026, followed by Europe, Asia Pacific, and countries such as UAE.
The onset of COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill but we could see supersonic jets return to our skies as early as 2021 thanks to players like Boom, NASA, Aerion, and Spike Aerospace.
Boom Supersonic is an aviation startup working on a new supersonic jet passenger that has been defined as the next-generation Concorde. The company has just unveiled its XB-1 demonstrator prototype to a group of aerospace executives in Denver and is expected to start testing next year.
The XB-1 is a scaled-down version of what could become a 199 feet long, 65 to 88 passenger jet capable of reaching speeds of Mach 1.3 — twice the speed of the average commercial jetliner. This would be made possible thanks to its three J85-15 engines, manufactured by General Electric and originally destined for military aircraft. The price of a ticket is expected to be around $5,000 a seat for a round-trip.
NASA’s X-59 QueSST
The X-95 QueSST is an experimental supersonic aircraft approved by the US Air Force and nicknamed after Quiet Supersonic Technology. The aircraft will collect community response data on the acceptability of its new sonic boom design and establish noise standards needed to lift the ban on commercial supersonic travel over land. With speeds of Mach 1.4, the supersonic jet is believed to be capable of reaching just 75 PLdB, a sound as loud as a car door closing.
The initial contract was awarded by NASA to Skunk Works for the preliminary design of the X-59. Manufacturing of the first parts began in November 2018, and a critical design review was completed in September 2019. In December of the same year, the X-59 won the “What’s New Award” by Popular Science in the aerospace category.
Nevada-based Aerion is currently working on a supersonic jet that is carbon neutral, 100% biofuel driven, and technically silent. The company’s ambitious plan estimates its 300 aircraft fleet could bring in over $40 billion in revenue over ten years.
The AS2 is designed to fly high enough so that its sonic boom will bounce off the atmosphere and never reach the ground — or disturb its inhabitants. The “boomless cruise” was planned for 2024 and will focus on the private business jet market.
Aerion has partnerships with several global aerospace companies, including Boeing and General Electric Aviation, who will be developing its engine core for the AS2. As of January 2020, Aerion had already made $2.5 billion in sales backlog for the jet, which will be manufactured in Melbourne, Florida.
Spike Aerospace is a leading global collaboration of aerospace firms. The world-class team is developing the Spike S-512, a revolutionary luxury aircraft with patent-pending Quiet Supersonic Flight technology. Spike’s professionals include senior engineers, executives, and advisors with backgrounds in top global aerospace companies such as Boeing, Embraer, Honeywell, Gulfstream, and others.
The Spike S-512 will be able to reach speeds of Mach 1.6 (450 mph faster than any other civilian aircraft) and carry 12 to 18 passengers for impressive ranges such as Hong Kong to London and Dubai to New York without stops. The jet will also feature multiplex digital technology for panoramic displays of the outside world, movies, or devices.
The Future of Supersonic Jets
Supersonic aircraft are gaining popularity, in particular in sectors where a reduction in time can mean business gains, such as private jets and long-legged luxury liners.
Leading brokers of on-demand business jet travel have found a correlation between offering extra speed and willingness to pay a higher ticket price. Same-day supersonic transatlantic business trips could actually cost about the same as today’s business class long-haul tickets. As Japan Airlines director of business, Takeshi Morita said, “time is truly the new luxury”.
There are still challenges that need to be addressed before supersonic jets return to the skies. One of them is the development of the engines, which are mostly still in concept or early testing stages. The other is environmental concerns such as noise and carbon emissions.
The industry has, however, come up with creative ideas for addressing these problems. By flying above 50,000 feet, supersonic planes can cut down on heat generation, reduce noise, and improve fuel efficiency — although such heights also pose emission complications such as larger amounts of fuel. In order to deal with this, companies are working on improving aerodynamics and developing more efficient engines with lower net life-cycle carbon emissions.
The push for environmental standards (which are, today, more flexible for supersonic airplanes compared to other aircraft) will fundamentally influence the development of these new machines. The question is not whether supersonic jets are possible, but rather how they can be flown at scale while meeting these standards. For the moment, things look rather promising.
About the Author
Yisela Alvarez Trentini is an Anthropologist + User Experience / Human-Computer Interaction Designer with an interest in emerging technologies, social robotics, and VR/AR.