Show an ad over header. AMP

Supersonic travel will cut international flight times, shrink the world

In a few years, it might be possible to fly from Washington, D.C., to Paris in four hours — instead of eight — or from San Francisco to Tokyo in just six hours aboard a new crop of supersonic jets.

Why it matters: High-speed air travel promises to shrink the planet, putting far-away vacation destinations within closer reach and enabling business travelers to attend meetings on another continent and return the same day.

The big picture: Affordable, sustainable, high-speed flight has the potential to revolutionize commercial air travel, just as the jet engine did in the late 1950s.

  • Yes, but: Engineers must first solve technical, business and environmental challenges that doomed previous efforts at supersonic travel, most notably the transatlantic Concorde.

Flashback: British Airways and Air France flew the Concorde from 1976 to 2003 on international routes like New York to London in under three hours.

  • But the "great white bird" was terrible for the environment and couldn't make a profit, even with round-trip fares averaging $12,000.

Fast forward: A handful of startups hopes a fresh approach — lightweight materials, efficient engine technologies and cleaner fuels — will make supersonic jets much cheaper to operate and thus economically viable for everyday travel.

Boeing-backed Aerion is developing a supersonic business jet that will begin production in Florida in 2023 and should be ready for customer delivery by 2027.

  • NetJets, Warren Buffett's fractional jet company, this week ordered 20 of the planes for $120 million each.
  • Also this week, Aerion teased a concept for its next plane: a larger 50-seat commercial airliner that would fly at Mach 4-plus speed — more than four times the speed of sound — "enabling flight between LA and Tokyo in less than three hours."

Boom Supersonic, backed by Japan Airlines, American Express Ventures, Emerson Collective and others, will begin production of its Overture supersonic aircraft in 2023.

  • It will seat 65–88 people and begin commercial flights in 2029, founder and CEO Blake Scholl tells Axios.
  • His goal, he says, is "four hours to anywhere, for $100." That's a long way off, but the company aims to start by offering fares comparable to today's business class.
  • A handful of other startups, including Hermeus and Spike Aerospace, are also developing supersonic jets.

Sustainability, not just speed, is a core goal. The new planes will be less harmful to the environment, the companies say, because they're designed to run on sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs).

  • SAFs are made from sustainable feedstocks like household solid waste, algae or used cooking oil, and producers like BP claim they can produce up to 80% lower carbon emissions than traditional jet fuel.
  • But SAFs are in short supply, so production needs to scale significantly in the next few years to meet the demand for cleaner-flying planes.

Reality check: For all the promising developments, supersonic commercial flights are still limited by regulatory hurdles, cautions Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Colorado.

  • "This is one of the very few high technology things where it feels like we have gone backward," he said.
  • "You used to be able to fly supersonically if you had a lot of money. Today, you cannot ... We've been flying the same speeds for 50–60 years."

The biggest problem, he says, is the noise associated with supersonic flight, on both takeoff and landing and at 60,000 feet.

  • Planes that fly past the speed of sound — about 760 mph — create shock waves that hit the ground with a startling thud, or "sonic boom."
  • That's why the FAA won't let them fly over land, limiting them to transoceanic routes.

What to watch: NASA researchers, along with Lockheed Martin, are designing a new supersonic plane that turns the sonic boom into "a gentle thump."

  • "It sounds more like a car door slamming, or maybe distant thunder," said NASA project manager Peter Coen.
  • NASA plans to fly the plane over select U.S. communities to see how people react. That data will then help regulators set noise standards for supersonic flight.

Editor's note: Emerson Collective is an Axios investor.

European soccer goes to war over wealthy clubs' plans for exclusive "Super League"

Europe's biggest soccer clubs have established The Super League, a new midweek tournament that would compete with — and threaten the very existence of — the Champions League.

Why it matters: This new league, set to start in 2023, "would bring about the most significant restructuring of elite European soccer since the 1950s, and could herald the largest transfer of wealth to a small set of teams in modern sports history," writes NYT's Tariq Panja.

Keep reading... Show less

81% of S&P 500 companies have reported a positive earnings surprise for Q1

First-quarter earnings so far have been very strong, outpacing even the rosy expectations from Wall Street and that's a trend that's expected to continue for all of 2021. S&P 500 companies are on pace for one of the best quarters of positive earnings surprises on record, according to FactSet.

Why it matters: The results show that not only has the earnings recession ended for U.S. companies, but firms are performing better than expected and the economy may be justifying all the hype.

Keep reading... Show less

NASA's Mars helicopter takes flight as first aircraft piloted on another planet

NASA successfully piloted the Ingenuity Mars helicopter for its first experimental flight on Monday, briefly hopping the aircraft as NASA's Perseverance rover collected data.

Why it matters: Ingenuity's short flight marks the first time a human-built aircraft has flown on a world other than Earth, opening the door to new means of exploring planets far from our own.

Keep reading... Show less

All U.S. adults now eligible for COVID-19 vaccine, meeting Biden's April 19 deadline

All 50 U.S. states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, have now made U.S. adults over the age of 16 eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, meeting President Biden's April 19 deadline.

Why it matters: The landmark speaks to the increased pace of the national vaccination campaign, but will increase pressure on the federal government, states and pharmaceutical companies to provide adequate vaccine supply and logistics.

Keep reading... Show less

Minneapolis braces for a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial

Minneapolis is waking up to images of an occupied city on Monday, as the city and the world await a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial.

What it's like: Residents running errands, picking up dinner and heading to the dog park in recent days encountered heavily-armed National Guard troops stationed throughout the city.

Keep reading... Show less

Russian authorities say jailed opposition leader Navalny has been transferred to hospital

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been hospitalized, one day after his doctor warned that the jailed Putin critic "could die at any moment," Russia's prison service said Monday.

Why it matters: News that Navalny's condition had severely deteriorated on the third week of a hunger strike prompted outrage from his supporters and international demands for Russia to provide him with immediate medical treatment.

Keep reading... Show less

The state worst hit by the pandemic

Data: Hamilton Place Strategies; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the job facing governments was to save lives and save jobs. Very few states did well on both measures, while New York, almost uniquely, did particularly badly on both.

Why it matters: The jury is still out on whether there was a trade-off between the dual imperatives; a new analysis from Hamilton Place Strategies shows no clear correlation between the two.

Keep reading... Show less

Biden confronts eroded credibility on climate action and Paris agreement

The biggest hurdle for President Biden in winning new emissions reduction commitments at this week's White House summit is America's on-again, off-again history of climate change efforts.

Why it matters: The global community is off course to meet the temperature targets contained in the Paris Climate Agreement. The White House wants the summit Thursday and Friday to begin to change that.

Keep reading... Show less



Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories