Last summer I had an experience I’m sure many are familiar with. Arriving at the airport I discovered my flight was delayed. Indefinitely, with no explanation. As I sat in a dull terminal staring out at an even duller patch of asphalt where my plane should have been stood, I couldn’t help but think there must be more to air travel than this. It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that many others have wondered the same whilst stuck aboard planes which closer resemble games of human Tetris than cabins.
From 1976 to 2003, passengers were able to travel from London to New York in less than 3 and a half hours whilst enjoying fine dining and supreme comfort. This was, of course, on board the world famous Concorde. The world’s first and only supersonic passenger jet which cruised 11 miles above earth at Mach 2.04; more the twice the speed of sound.
Concorde began to fall out of favour at the turn of the century, though, partly due to the extreme cost of operating the jet and also the decline in air travel following the 9/11 attacks. Concorde was finally retired in 2003 after British Airways and Air France announced the operation of their fleets was no longer financially viable. At the time many people saw this as a step backwards; a plane designed and built in the 60s was no longer feasible in the 21st century.
But could supersonic passenger jets be making a comeback? Well, perhaps. Flying beyond the sound barrier throws up a unique set of challenges which designers of subsonic aircraft have never had to deal with. Firstly, the intense stress that all components must withstand whilst flying at 1550mph through extreme changes in temperature and pressure. Secondly, the sonic boom that is created by supersonic travel. The shockwave created in the wake of Concorde was often powerful enough to damage property, prompting the US government to pass a bill prohibiting commercial aircraft to break the sound barrier.
The biggest issue by far is the simple fact that to double your speed you need double the power. This means larger engines burning more fuel and more fuel means more pollution, an idea which has met strong resistance from environmental groups and airline regulators who now impose strict rules restricting fuel usage.
However, thanks to a recent spike in air travel and the development of new technologies, there has been a resurgence in supersonic aviation research. NASA awarded $247million to Lockheed Martin for the company to develop methods of muffling sonic booms. What’s more, it was announced in 2016 that Richard Branson has invested in a new ‘mini Concorde’ allowing faster travel at affordable prices. The US government is even considering repealing its anti-sonic boom bill.
It seems the world is gearing up for the new age of air travel. In the 20th century only one route, London to New York was financially viable; it is now estimated over 300 routes all over the globe are possible. 10 years from now could it, once again, be possible for entrepreneurs to attend meetings in New York and commute home to London that evening?
Whether it comes in the next decade or is still generations away, it is clear that sooner or later the aviation industry has to make the jump back to commercial supersonic services. It is staggering that most flight times have remained relatively similar since the 1970s and common airliners such as Boeing 747 were designed as long ago as the 60s. One thing is certain, any innovation that puts a stop to endless waits in stuffy Greek airports will surely be welcomed by all with open arms, especially me.