Friday, October 11, 2013

Here comes the boom

NO business traveller has flown faster than the speed of sound since 2003, when British Airways and Air France retired Concorde. The obituary of non-military supersonic flight has been written repeatedly since then. But Jeff Miller, a former executive at both Learjet and Gulfstream, thinks the time has come for its revival—by private jet.

In a two-post series at Forbes, Mr Miller argues that the richest private-jet owners will gladly pay extra for the time saved by a plane capable of supersonic flight. As evidence, he cites the sales of the Gulfstream G650, which travels at Mach .925 (610 mph, 982 kph). The plane, he notes, "is, in truth, only modestly faster than an earlier generation of jets." But many jet owners consider the hour it saves on long-haul flights worth the premium.

The big obstacle to supersonic travel remains the same: noise. Current regulations limit sonic booms over the continental United States, restricting the usefulness of supersonic jets. But Mr Miller maintains that there is a market for them. He cites research "conducted by Rolland Vincent Associates for Aerion Corporation" that found a market for around 400 supersonic business jets, even at the height of the recession in 2009. (I'd love to take a look at that PowerPoint.)

"My guess", Mr Miller writes, "is the global market today is higher still, and it will go higher if US regulators accept noise levels produced by sonic-boom-suppressing innovations."

That's a big "if". Supersonic business jets will be easy to demonise—the 1% flying high above America, frightening and annoying citizens with their sonic booms—so the "sonic-boom-suppressing innovations" Mr Miller speaks of had better be good. But then his second post suggests they are. Gulfstream engineers, he writes, have come up with a design modification—a supersonic spike, which Mr Miller describes as "a telescoping boom extending from the nose of a supersonic jet"—that reduces the traditional "boom" to something more like "distant thunder". Aerion, the company that commissioned the market research mentioned above, is trying a different approach.

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