Boom or Bust?
The airline industry as we know it today began with a piece of legislation known as the Air Mail Act of 1925, which was approved by the United States Congress to allow private contractors to carry airmail. The primitive, frail aircraft of the time could barely transport a handful of passengers, but with a guaranteed source of revenue, a landmark period of innovation began.
In less than ten years’ time, US designers had built efficient passenger aircraft such as the Boeing Model 247 and immortal Douglas DC-3, thus creating an entirely new business: the passenger airline. A pause in airline growth during the Second World War, as resources were poured into the war effort, resulted in a boom after that conflict ended. Twenty-five years of advancement in aircraft development followed and saw airline routes established all over the world. The ‘jet age’ transformed the planet in many ways both good and bad, with bigger and faster aircraft constantly being produced, culminating in the classic Boeing 747 and Anglo-French Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde in the nineteen sixties.
The first bust
The first stumble in almost 40 years of relentless growth came with the Oil Crisis of the 1970s, when an unprecedented surge in the cost of fuel saw many airlines enter bankruptcy as costs spiralled out of control. Air travel dropped dramatically and older aircraft were prematurely retired as the industry went through fundamental changes. Efficiency and cost control became vital requirements, as fuel bills went from an almost unnoticed slice of the budget to exceed 30% of total costs.
One of the first victims of this paradigm shift was the abandonment of supersonic flight as a commercial venture. Boeing shut down their project to build an SST (supersonic transport), and the USA banned civil aircraft from supersonic flight over its landmass. The Soviet Union and Anglo-French consortiums separately went ahead with designing and flying SSTs, but the Russian Tupolev Tu-144 was involved in a disastrous accident at an air show and never flew again.
The European Concorde did fly for many years, but just ten examples were built, with British Airways and Air France being the only operators. Development costs ran into the billions, and that investment had to be completely written off, though the aircraft were profitable (at an operational level) over limited trans-Atlantic routes. A cruise speed of Mach 2.2 (more than twice the speed of sound) meant that travel time was half that of conventional aircraft, so Concorde service was very popular with wealthy businesspeople, luxury leisure passengers and celebrities, including one foreign minister of a small South Asian island nation who was frequently seen on board Concorde in the 1980s.
The worst bust
The global slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the worst in the short history of commercial airlines. Even the most optimistic airline managers now accept that the industry has drastically changed, and that a partial worldwide recovery is unlikely until summer 2022 at the earliest.
Yet, despite the looming bankruptcies of almost every airline in the world, a number of optimists have been promoting SSTs yet again. Even the usually conservative US Air Force is considering plans for a supersonic addition to its Presidential fleet of aircraft. Not to be outdone, Russia’s President Putin has proposed an adapted supersonic bomber design as an executive jet catering to Russian oligarchs.
Currently there are several companies competing to make a 21st century SST a reality. The leading contender is Boom Technologies, who recently announced a provisional order from United Airlines for its Overture design which will cruise at Mach 1.7, more than twice the speed of conventional aircraft. Virgin Atlantic and Japan Airlines have already placed orders for it, and the aircraft is due to undergo test flying by 2026, with the first commercial model slated for delivery in 2029.
Aerion, a rival company has declared that its supersonic aircraft, a small 12-seat jet named the AS2, capable of attaining Mach 1.4, will fly in 2023. Furthermore, Aerion claimed that the later and larger AS3 will be even faster (at four times the speed of sound), and expected to be in production by the end of this decade. However, the company announced in May 2021 that it had “funding shortcomings”, and is unlikely to build an aircraft in the near future.
Another Boston-based company, Spike Aerospace, also has plans for a 12-18-passenger jet which will cruise at Mach 1.6, but hasn’t offered a timeline for the project.
Will a supersonic transport be a commercial reality?
Designing, testing, certifying and building a modern airplane is a task that absorbs billions of dollars with little guarantee of profit. The most recent privately funded initiative to build a new passenger aircraft, Bombardier’s C-series, burned an estimated USD 6 billion before the rights to the aircraft were sold to Airbus for a meagre $1.
A not dissimilar aircraft, the Sukhoi Superjet built by Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation with state funding, was successfully designed, certified (by both Russian and European civil aviation authorities) and produced, but has failed dismally in airline service, with a poor safety record (three fatal accidents) and erratic dispatch reliability.
What does history tell us?
Developing an all-new aircraft type is a journey strewn with pitfalls. Boeing in the 1950s, flush with the success of its combat aircraft during WW2, found itself falling back, as the peerless Lockheed Constellation and Douglas’s more utilitarian DC-6 and -7 were taking market share at the expense of Boeing’s adapted Model 377. Realizing they had to leapfrog technologically to remain competitive, Boeing took the risky step of designing a jet-powered passenger aircraft to rival the British de Havilland Comet, which was about to enter passenger service.
The resulting Boeing 707 would go on to dominate the world and establish Boeing’s place as the largest manufacturer of civil aircraft in the world. A later, and also very risky, decision to build the 747 would cement this dominance for decades. But both ventures were fraught with danger bringing Boeing to the brink of bankruptcy. As senior managers became more risk-averse and ‘shareholder-value’ became a priority, Boeing too ultimately lost its focus, resulting in the debacle with the 737 MAX
Lockheed and Douglas, Boeing’s great rivals in the airliner game, were to lose their way too in competing with the Boeing 747, with the rival Lockheed L-1011 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10 driving both companies to the brink of bankruptcy, forcing a merger for Douglas (first with McDonnell and later with Boeing) and causing Lockheed to exit the commercial aircraft market completely.
The cost of developing the C-Series was the ultimate cause of Bombardier completely exiting the commercial aircraft space as well. Airbus has spent in the region of USD 25-30 billion developing the A380 but has now terminated the program after just 251 orders. The giant company will rely on the more successful A320 and A350 models to remain in the market.
Is a supersonic transport feasible?
To bring a supersonic aircraft to airline service within a decade would be a phenomenal achievement. Designing a wing capable of efficient supersonic flight in complex enough. Add to that the flight control systems capable of handling the transition at a level of safety expected today and the fact that engines of a suitable type have not even been designed yet, let alone tested. Rolls-Royce (who built the engines for Concorde) are part of the Boom project but will have to design a completely new powerplant to achieve the required performance.
The aviation industry is littered with innovative and capable designs that made it as far as being manufactured and entering service, only to fail commercially. Airbus’s flagship, the mighty A380, is only the latest in a long line of wonderful machines that were destroyed by the brutal market realities of the airline world.
An operating and affordable supersonic passenger transport would be an amazing development. This writer bitterly regrets the missed opportunities to fly in Concorde. A chance to be a passenger in a future SST is a wonderful dream, but I very much doubt it will be a reality in my lifetime.