Friday June 16, 2017

Concorde 2.0: the race to build a new supersonic passenger plane

A Concorde makes its final approach to London's Heathrow airport in October 2003.

A Concorde makes its final approach to London's Heathrow airport in October 2003. (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen 8:08

When the Concorde jet flew for the last time in 2003, observers mourned the apparent end of commercial supersonic flight. No more three-hour transatlantic trips that could see you cross the pond and return you home in time for dinner all in the same day.

With its history of attracting celebrities and politicians, and tales of elaborate champagne-and-caviar meals on board, the Concorde's mystique persisted long after its last flight.

As the Paris Air Show, the world's largest aerospace trade show, opens this week, supersonic flight is back on the radar of the aviation industry,

Two companies — Boom Technology, a startup backed by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, and aircraft manufacturer Aerion — are hoping to bring back the supersonic passenger jet.

But will we all be zipping across the ocean soon on the Concorde 2.0, or is the dream of supersonic flight still out of reach for the average passenger?

       

Supersonic redux

Jay Bennett, assistant editor of PopularMechanics.com, has been covering the race to develop the next generation of the Concorde. He tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that one of the big unanswered questions in the industry is why it's taken so long to revisit a new commercial supersonic aircraft.

"I think what has changed that has led more people to get excited about prospects, for not only a new era of supersonic flight, but cheaper supersonic flight, is the development of composite materials … and new engine technology has advanced to the point of making supersonic flight more fuel efficient, which was one of the problems with the Concorde, that it guzzled a lot of gas. And so that's why ticket prices were so high and it was such an exclusive flight; it wasn't really available to the general public."

       

Stewardesses

Concorde air stewardesses stand in front of a scale model of the aircraft. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

JFK → LHR in half the time

Part of the legendary appeal of the Concorde was that it cut many international flight times in half, attracting business executives and other busy travellers. Given how hectic modern life has become, being able to get where you need to go faster — and hopefully cheaper than in the Concorde's heyday — means there will likely be an audience for the new iteration of supersonic flights.

"You always hear that prospect of a New York to London flight in three and a half hours — I think that gets people excited, to think it would all of a sudden be possible to go to another country or the other side of the world in the same day," Bennett says. "And then this idea of breaking the sound barrier, of going faster than the speed of sound, it has this kind of mystique. It's kind of a bucket-list item for people that they'd like to do at some point in their lives."

       

Old Concorde

A British Airways Concorde takes off at Heathrow Airport for its last flight in November 2003, in London. (Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

Plane players

While Boom and Aerion push ahead with their plans to develop a new supersonic aircraft, they're aiming for slightly different sides of the market, Bennett explains.

"Boom Technology is trying to build a supersonic airliner that can hold 50 to 55 passengers, whereas Aerion is looking to build a supersonic business jet that [are] only going to have room for about 12 passengers," he says.

Both companies say their planes will be faster, cheaper, and more comfortable than the Concorde — its cabins were notoriously cramped despite its reputation for luxury — but can they live up to that promise?

"They're planning on [flying] faster than Concorde ever flew and then making it more accessible," Bennett says. "[Boom's] proposed goal is to get the price of a seat on their aircraft down to about the same price as a business class seat on a commercial airliner today. It's going to probably be some time before there's enough availability that ticket prices are that low … [but] you can kind of foresee this future where you could have commercially available supersonic travel that the average person could participate in."

        

Fancy food

A lobster dinner served on the Concorde as the plane flew over the Atlantic Ocean. (Jim Sugar/Corbis via Getty Images)

Unique experience

The Concorde used to be described in Hollywood terms: elegant, glamorous, elite. "I've always thought of the Concorde as a magical object, a symbol, a miracle," French designer Andree Putman told the New York Times when she collaborated with Air France's Concorde in the 1990s.

British Airways' first commercial Concorde flight included Dom Perignon champagne, lobster canapés, grilled steak, palm heart salad with Roquefort dressing and fresh strawberries with cream.

Celebrities like Elton John, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor and Sean Connery all regularly flew the Concorde.

While the next generation of supersonic jets are being designed to be far more within reach of the average traveller, the experience of travelling on such an aircraft will continue to be unique, Bennett notes.

"The main difference in the passenger experience is going to be how high you're flying — 65,000 feet, roughly twice as high as airliners fly today, because they want to get up into that thinner air in the high altitude. And when you're flying that high and you look out the window, you can actually see the curvature of the earth. The sky is a deeper shade of blue. And so it's going to be a completely different experience in terms of kind of earth-gazing and window-gazing when you're in flight."

          

Boom prototype

Boom Technologies unveiled their XB-1 Supersonic demonstrator aircraft in November 2015. (Tom Cooper/Getty Images for Boom Technology)

Future of flight

As aviation insiders gather in Paris for the air show and buzz continues to grow around the possibility of a new supersonic jet coming on market in coming years, Bennett points out that both Boom and Aerion have several hurdles to overcome before that reality comes to pass, but he envisions a future where he might get to fly on a modern-day Concorde.

"Boom is working on their demonstrator, just getting started on manufacturing. [And] Aerion is planning next year to begin construction on a new facility where they're going to do most of their work. And then hopefully … in the 2020s, we'll actually see these aircraft fly."

       


To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with Jay Bennett, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.