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Whither the next Concorde? Times have changed in the decade since commercial supersonic flights were last available. Jonathan Hart looks into the future of superfast flying
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard and fasten your seatbelts. We’ll be cruising at 3,000mph and our transatlantic flight time today will be 60 minutes...”
Sixty minutes? London to New York in an hour, or eight times faster than the average? That’s just one future journey-time forecast for a new range of supersonic or hypersonic (faster and higher) aircraft currently on the drawing board. Other flight times mooted include Europe-Australia in under five hours and the US West Coast-Japan in under three – each including subsonic travel overland.
What’s more, say engineers, overcome sonic boom noise restrictions and hop into and out of lower space and you could be travelling between two points anywhere in the world within a couple of hours.
All thrilling stuff. But how much is realistic and how much is… well, hyper talk?
Right now, while the technologies are saying “yes”, the business community is continuing to say a qualified “no” to a super-fast flight revival, at least while it tackles more earthly concerns.
Hidebound by increasing regulatory controls and the snail-paced realities of a long-term economic go-slow, buyers and flyers view the prospect as so much impractical pie in the future skies; a possible that’s highly improbable for collective industry application.
In short, to paraphrase the fabled 1960s sci-fi puppets whose rocket-shaped aircraft orbited the globe in the blink of an eye, Thunderbirds may still be go, but are no more credible for the onset of the 21st century.
Despite the short-lived introduction of commercial supersonic transports (SSTs), plus the technological advancements since, business travellers are still flying nowhere very fast and have little current appetite for peripatetic stargazing. Mired in cutbacks, consolidation and congestion, the consensus is that flying commercially on business has taken not so much a step forward as two paces back to the future. Cracked wings and late delivery glitches with today’s latest aircraft do little to inspire confidence in any more rapid-travel progress.
To corporate travellers with their feet planted firmly in the realms of a troubled terra firma, or more likely in an airport security queue, the notion remains a touch too fanciful and far-fetched, still given to niche application and governmental string pulling.
Moreover, airlines are fighting shy of commitment to the manufacture or purchase of commercial aircraft that don’t carry the future-proof credentials of optimum operating economy, squeaky-clean environmental friendliness and global political acceptance – all of which the mooted supersonic or hypersonic models need to show if they are to lift off the drawing board.
Already juggling with strict EU carbon trading regulations, IATA carriers are committed to halving their footprint by 2050 and zero consideration likely will be given to future aircraft that are not emission-minimal or powered by ultra-clean alternative fuels.
For all its glamour and pioneering attributes, Concorde saw the commercial light of day largely as a combined result of state posturing, excess and vanity, all viewed as inappropriate and detrimental to today’s chastened, increasingly egalitarian and prudent volume market. Ask any travel manager hamstrung by the stringent budgeting and more pressing priorities of dealing with the squeezed capacities and increasingly complex logistics of the present – the return of supersonic travel is unlikely to prove a major game-changer.
Speed can no longer be counted as a business travel priority, says Mike Butcher, regional travel manager, Western Europe and Africa, for global telecoms firm Alcatel-Lucent. Right now and looking ahead, comfort and functionality are more important.
“The priority must be to get people from A to B in the most comfortable and cost-effective way, flying indirectly if needs be,” says Butcher. “That’s how the industry pattern is likely to stay for a long time to come.” He points to the business travel landscape changing entirely since the first SSTs, with multiple variables to factor in such as company policy, compliance, risk management, corporate social responsibility and duty of care. If employees of any rank must fly commercially on business – and with advanced communication technologies there’s mounting pressure on them not to – then practicality before speed looks set to be the future mandate.
“Supersonic travel would be a welcome extra to the mix, but you have to look at how it would integrate with newer disciplines,” Butcher adds. “You have to assume that the costs would be containable, the routes and capacities feasible, and all the global ancillaries, such as airports and air traffic controls, are properly geared for it.”
Says Nigel Turner, director of programme management, UK & Ireland, for Carlson Wagonlit Travel: “A revival of supersonic travel promises to reduce travel time dramatically, but you could only hope that future security or immigration procedures would allow equally rapid airport boarding and de-planing.”
Adds David Vine, senior director, compliance, for Concur Technologies: “Speedier travel would be welcome, but what is always likely to be the priority is being first on and first off the aircraft on the ground.”
Certainly, the time-saving omens are not favourable for would-be company speed merchants. Following the demise of spendthrift Concorde, plus the better part of a decade of increasing accountability and decreasing extravagance, the old time-is-money argument has taken a similar nosedive.
In addition, to at least this and probably the next generation of business travellers collectively weaned on a drastically pared-down regime of the mandated, clean and green, the hope and possibility of flying anything other than subsonic on business remain odds-on non-starters.
Those odds are not helped by the fact that all bar a few of the immediate next generation of aircraft to 2025 or 2030 – albeit with proposed shapes ranging from the conventional to something akin to multi-deck stealth bombers or UFOs – have been designed to fly slower than current airliners to preserve fuel and lessen environmental impact.
Nonetheless, visions of supersonic or hypersonic commercial airliners determinedly live on, if only still on paper and occasionally aired in the media. Together with appealing to the dreams of armies of aviation anoraks, their public outings arguably serve as a panacea to ongoing drudgery in a century in which smart-gadget business travellers might have expected to be beamed up like the characters in Star Trek.
Equally resembling something out of science fiction, perhaps the most enterprising and potentially feasible of these is the British-designed A2, a concept reputed to be capable of flying from Europe to Australia in fewer than five hours at up to 3,400mph or almost five times the speed of sound (aka Mach 1).
The project is billed as being commercially feasible in as few as 20 years, although young business travellers currently enduring the 48-hour round trip to Sydney or Melbourne shouldn’t be counting on day trips Down Under just yet. Research precedes any firm development plans for the A2 and, critically, continuation of the European Space Agency project from next year onwards hinges on what promises to be a tough new round of funding talks.
For business purposes, the most compelling reasons for continuation of the A2 are that it would comfortably carry a payload of 300 passengers and could utilise existing runways at quiet, subsonic speeds between flying hypersonic over the North Pole.
In addition, a Europe-Australia ticket price has been guesstimated via analysis of development, production and operating costs at the equivalent of a potentially affordable £3,000. Shaped liked a rocket and 132m long with short rear wings, the A2 would not have windows due to hypersonic heat generation. Instead, the outside view would be displayed on seat consoles.
More fundamentally, the A2 – brainchild of Reaction Engines Limited and developed under the European Commission’s Long-Term Advanced Propulsion Concepts and Technologies (LAPCAT) programme – would weigh less than a B747 and be fuelled by liquid hydrogen. Producing only water vapour and nitrous oxide as exhaust means it would emit a negligible carbon footprint.
As with other supersonic or hypersonic concepts currently surviving a traditional embryonic cull by impecunious governments, researchers have largely conquered the challenges of marrying clean fuel propulsion with the combined or separate engine technologies, materials and lift/drag co-efficiencies required to fly both subsonic and over and above Mach 1.
In contrast to the A2, however, similar concepts mooted by the two major aircraft manufacturers would carry smaller payloads and more questionable ballpark ticket costs.
Boeing’s Icon II, which has been undergoing testing with NASA for potential introduction from 2030, would carry 120 passengers flying at speeds of up to Mach 1.8.
Airbus parent EADS’ seaweed biofuel/hydrogen/oxygen powered Zero Emission Hypersonic Transport (ZEHST) project, developed in conjunction with Japan, would carry 100 passengers at speeds of up to Mach 4.
A one-hour London-New York hop is envisaged for ZEHST, but business travellers are unlikely to see any advance on the familiar average eight-hour transatlantic tedium until 2050 at the earliest. For now, at least, keep watching the skies.
Aircraft manufacturers plan commercial supersonics from military models.
Bristol and Sud-Aviation join forces to develop Concorde. The Soviet Union’s alternative is the TU-144. The US opts for the larger, faster and longer-range Boeing 2707 design.
Concorde and the TU-144 are launched. US Congress scraps its SST due to noise concerns but continues to develop an advanced version (AST). Concorde is banned from flying supersonic overland on the London-New York route, later repealed. Development of the AST is scrapped following introduction of the more economical B747.
Despite political rebuffs and failing to establish regular routes elsewhere, Concorde successfully builds a niche transatlantic market. The TU-144 is taken out of service and plans for an advanced version are scrapped.
An Air France Concorde crashes in July 2000, killing 113 people, and all Concorde flights are suspended for over a year as a result. Both Air France and British Airways scrap their services altogether in 2003, citing high operating costs and low passenger numbers.
This article was first published in ABTN's sister title Buying Business Travel, the award-winning magazine for company travel & meetings buyers and arrangers.
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