In November 2003, Concorde was retired from service, marking the end of commercial supersonic air travel (see box). However, a number of companies are working on jets that travel faster than the speed of sound. These include Gulfstream, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. One of the challenges being tackled by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is how to reduce the problem of sonic booms', the noise generated when a plane breaks through the sound barrier. The most interesting research comes from a British company, Reaction Engines, which has developed an engine in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) that could take planes to five times the speed of sound.
Will this improve travel times?
Despite billions spent on research and development, top speeds for conventional jets have barely moved over the past few decades. At only 85% of the speed of sound, Boeing latest aeroplane, the 787 Dreamliner, has a nearly identical cruising speed to the original 747, developed in 1969. Some commercial air travel times have actually increased slightly as congestion and fuel costs have led airlines to cut their average speeds. For instance, Slate magazine points out that it takes 45 minutes longer to travel from Washington DC to Miami than it did in 1973. However, this could change dramatically if some of the ideas for supersonic travel get off the ground. Reaction claims that Skylon, its concept for a plane that uses its new engines, could one day fly from London to Sydney in less than four hours.
What are the chances of success?
The fastest manned aircraft, the X-15, already travels at over six times the speed of sound, while many fighter jets travel at well over Mach 2. This shows that the technology exists. However, making it work financially is another matter. Murdo Morrison of Flight International admits that he is "very sceptical" about the commercial feasibility of many of these plans. He points out that "the costs of designing something like this from scratch are astronomical". Any firms hoping to produce a viable finished product will need big pockets and patient backers, as "aerospace is littered with companies that went bust once they went into production". Ongoing fiscal problems will mean that government agencies may also have to cut back their research efforts.
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Will commercial passengers see any benefit?
A key challenge is that fuel consumption rises exponentially with speed, putting the cost of a ticket beyond the reach of the average passenger. So most of the focus so far has been on the relatively niche sub-sector of private executive jets. Business leaders tend to be much less concerned about the cost of fuel and are more willing to pay high prices for the latest technology. As Business Insider notes, "the largest corporate planes already cost almost as much as the smallest Boeing and Airbus SAS airliners, and can fly about 90% as fast as sound".
But do we even need them?
Technology consultant Andrew Jensen thinks that "with options such as teleconferencing and virtual web meetings, face-to-face meetings requiring business flights and hotel stays are becoming less and less necessary". The parlous state of the economy has also led firms and their shareholders to start questioning whether executive jets are really needed. Indeed, Newsweek's David Gross reports that "corporate jet use is also a favourite subject for shareholder activist types", with Chesapeake's Aubrery McClendon only the latest CEO to be accused of abusing it. The heads of the big four' car companies generated outrage four years ago when they travelled to Washington DC in their private jets to ask for a bail-out. Sales of ordinary private jets are expected to be down 11% this year, raising questions as to whether there really is a mass market for supersonic planes.
What about space exploration?
Reaction thinks its Sabre engine could allow spacecraft to take off from a standing position, rather than using rockets. This would make shuttle launches much cheaper and help bring about the exploration of other planets as a commercially viable source of minerals. In April a company, Planetary Resources, was launched to mine asteroids. Most scientists though are extremely sceptical, pointing to the high costs of even existing Nasa missions. Professor Richard Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology thinks that the idea is "many decades ahead of its time". So although the project has attracted some high-profile names, including Google founder Larry Page, for now it remains an exciting, but niche, application for supersonic technology.
Why Concorde failed
Concorde was a collaborative project between the French and British governments to develop a supersonic aircraft that could be sold around the world. Yet while it succeeded in its goal of slashing flight times, as the BBC put it, "Concorde has always appealed far more to politicians and engineers than to administrators and economists". The high rate of fuel consumption and restricted number of seats, when compared to a regular jet, made it particularly uneconomic after oil prices surged. The "sonic boom" created by supersonic travel also led to draconian speed restrictions for travel over land. So while the project cost the two countries £11bn (in 2003 prices), no planes were bought by airlines other than Air France and British Airways. A crash in July 2000 and fall off in demand after 9/11 led to services being scrapped in November 2003.
Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.
He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.
Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.
As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri
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