In 10 Years We’ll Be Able to Fly US-London in 3 Hours and to Tokyo in Just 5 Hours

Fifteen years ago frequent flyers took advantage of an amazing deal to fly the Concorde for ~ $1100 roundtrip:

  • Buy 21 subscruptions to Inside Flyer magazine, earning 2500 Starwood points for each purchase
  • Transfer those Starwood points to Qantas at 1:2 (with bonus, 20,000 Starwood points yielded 50,000 Qantas points back then)
  • Qantas used to let you book Concorde for the same price as British Airways first class. Shortly thereafter Qantas increased the cost of premium cabin awards as much as 92%.

This was after Concorde’s one and only crash in 2000 but before its last flight in 2003.

Air France flight AF4590 punctured a tire running over a piece of metal from a Continental DC-10 that had taken off before it. The tire exploded, and rubber from the tire hit the plane’s fuel tank and caused a fire. With only one operational engine the plane couldn’t gain altitude.

Since the retirement of Concorde there’s been no supersonic commercial air travel. It had competitors – the Soviet Tupolov nicknamed Konkordski, and the Boeing 2707 SST which was never completed. The first production version of the Tupolov Tu-144 crashed at the Paris Air Show in 1973, supposedly the plane was built based on stolen planes from the French and Americans but they had been fed fake plans.

It’s amazing that Concorde entered commercial service as long ago as 1976 yet its Mach 2 speeds haven’t been matched by new aircraft since. But Concorde took about 8 times as much fuel per passenger mile as a conventional jet, and the sonic booms it generated created backlash from voters.

Here are some of the routes that were operated by Concorde:

Only one U.S. airline ever operated Concordes — Braniff leased planes from British Airways and Air France and flew domestically in 1979 and 1980 at subsonic speeds from Dallas to Washington Dulles where BA and Air France crews would take over for the onward journey to London and Paris.

Supersonic travel is banned over the U.S. Period. There aren’t noise limits that technology can work towards. Instead, use of the technology over land no matter how quiet is simply against FAA regulations.

A July 2011 FAA presentation indicated an openness to revisiting these rules although one can expect significant lobbying against this — not just from noise opponents but from airlines that don’t wish to invest in the technology.

As a result of flight bans over land you can fly New York – London or San Francisco – Tokyo, but not New York – Tokyo (without giving up the speed advantage while flying over land).

Boom Technology is working to bring back supersonic flight. It is expected to fly Mach 2.2 or 10% faster than Concorde. It’s striking that after 50 years they’re only looking at 10% more speed and a ‘30% gain in efficiency’. That’s a real testament to what was created, economic efficiencies aside, in the 1960s.

With advances in jet engines, and new composite materials, they think they can generate the efficiencies needed to make supersonic commercial travel viable with planes in flight by the mid-2020s. The plan is for range just over 5000 miles and seating for 45 – 55 business class seats.

As long as supersonic travel is more expensive than subsonic, the market will be limited. And limited markets make it tough to recoup development and acquisition costs. Airlines have a hard time making money operating only a couple of planes of a type. The plane needs to be capable of flying long distances, fuel efficiently, and large numbers of passengers in order to be economical on a large scale.

Otherwise the market has to be able to support fares significantly higher than for subsonic transport. The ultimate question is: how much is shaving 3.5 hours off of a transatlantic flight worth, and to how many people?

In 10 years cars will drive themselves, and our kids will ask vexingly did people really used to drive themselves, and how was that possible without having accidents all the time? And in 10 years we may be flying across the Atlantic in 3 hours and across the Pacific in 5 hours.

The biggest barrier to all of this is usually thought to be the US federal government, and NIMBY-like concerns about noise (and sometimes astroturf lobbying that looks like noise concern funded by incumbent airlines).

However Boom just announced an investment from Japan Airlines and it makes one wonder whether the US would just get left behind. Remember most Concorde routes didn’t touch the US at all.

Through this agreement, JAL will provide its knowledge and experience as an airline to support Boom in developing the aircraft.

As part of the agreement, JAL has made a strategic investment of $10 million (USD) in Boom and is collaborating with the company to refine the aircraft design and help define the passenger experience for supersonic travel. JAL also has the option to purchase up to 20 Boom aircraft through a pre-order arrangement.

If Japan goes along, you could imagine Tokyo – Sydney, Tokyo – Singapore, and Tokyo – Vancouver flights without crossing land until arrival. And then there’s be tremendous pressure on the US to begin allowing service.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Seems like the Canadian government could actually make this a lot more viable. A transatlantic flight from SFO spends more time over Canada than the US, and the duration is similar to a transpacific flight.

  2. Missing out on many of the Concorde routes didn’t exactly leave the US behind, so I doubt missing out on Concorde v2 would either. Sure it will be cool, but it will be a niche product at best, one that most will never be able to afford to fly. 3 or 5 hr flights isn’t even enough time to get proper sleep, so jet lag might even be worse.

    By the way, where is the outcry from you leftist envirofascists about this fossil fuel guzzling monstrosity?

  3. Futurology is the art of predicting 13 of the next 3 revolutions.

    In the order of ten times the fuel for a tenth of the passenger load equals $50 000 per ticket.

    Not economicaly viable. Won’t happen. Keep dreaming.

  4. Inviting comments from “leftist envirofascists” doesn’t inspire confidence you’re open to any contrary input.

  5. Not everyone lies near a mega hub. If you have to connect to a intl flight, thats hours of extra time. I’d like to see lower capacity but same range 787. Say an airplane of 50 people that can economically fly CLE-CTU. So people don’t have to connect at congested airports like LHR or PEK.

  6. Nothing wrong with getting to your destination faster, perhaps more suitable for travel from the US to Asia, to convert that from a miserably long flight to the equivalent of US to Europe time frames. Less jet lag, fewer takeoffs and landings, gigantic customer base, put your cargo on an earlier flight to arrive when you do, and save the cargo space for valuable cargo that is time sensitive.
    5,000 miles may not quite get you to the destination, so either add fuel capacity or use fuel more efficiently.

  7. As usual, what you’ve written is so full of factual and technical errors it’s laughable, but you always demonstrate your complete lack of knowledge of most things involving aviation so no surprise.

    Oooooo, JAL has invested 10 meeellion dollars in the venture…oh yeah. That’s real big.

    The proposed aircraft will never fly.

    Slow news day, eh? Must fill space…

  8. How does the FAA ban on flying supersonic overland prevent JAL from flying an SST into LAX, SFO or SEA? You’ll be subsonic and descending well before you get overland anyway, except maybe at SEA. What they can’t do is fly to JFK from Tokyo, but that’s a very different matter.

  9. @Tony as usual you claim there are errors without identifying a single one. This project is a long shot, but they’ve got as good or better a chance of anyone to make this work. $10 million isn’t much, which is why it’s one item at the very end and merely suggestive that it may be possible to get the Japanese government on board. The biggest barrier to supersonic flight is government regulation not technical capability.

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