Many of the One Percenters are apparently desperate for something that their money can’t yet buy: the ability to fly at least twice as fast as rest of us.
Since the Concorde supersonic passenger jet was grounded after a crash in 2003, an uneasy leveling has prevailed in air travel. The rich have been unable to buy the privilege of cruising at 1,300 mph across the Atlantic while everybody else was limited to a mere 600 mph.
It was never going to last.
An irresistible pressure has built up to satisfy the pent-up demand to fly faster—a lot faster. Now there are plans to deliver that thrill in two sizes, with corporate jets and with a new generation of supersonic airliners.
Concorde’s spectacular ride—those who flew it regularly came to refer to it fondly as “the rocket”—came at the cost of three blights: in supersonic cruise over water it guzzled gas and when flying over land it generated a sonic boom that, like thunderclaps, shook buildings beneath its flight path (the boom was caused by shock waves from the wings moving forward and downward). It was also noisy during takeoff and landing and dirty, leaving a trail of sooty vapor behind it.
Any supersonic jet today will have to seem a lot more virtuous in its impact on the planet.
In view of that, the name of the company launching a new supersonic airliner seems defiantly retro: Boom Technology. It suggests that, far from muting the thunderclaps they see them as a branding advantage. The Denver-based company says its jet will be faster than the Concorde, cruising at around 1,600 mph, thereby making even bigger booms.
However, the economics of the jet are based on routes where it will fly for most of the time over either the Atlantic or the Pacific and the designers claim it will be able to meet current noise regulations for airports because it will fly subsonically over land so that the boom is not generated.
Concorde was one of the sexiest looking airplanes ever built, but alongside wide-body jets it looked tiny, with seats for only 100 passengers. The Boom design will be half that size, seating only 50, but it’s no accident that the Boom jet looks like a smaller Concorde.
There is an intriguing scientific lineage behind the shape. Although the Concorde was designed in the 1960s its dart-shaped wing was aerodynamically so smart that it remains hard to improve upon. This wing was the brainchild of Dietrich Kuchemann, one of a whole clutch of scientists who had worked on high-speed flight in Nazi Germany and were brought to work in America and Britain after the war—Kuchemann led the aerodynamicists in Britain who worked on the Concorde.
However, apart from the shape of the wing the Boom jet has been made possible by two new leaps in technology. The first is that it will be built of composite materials, not aluminum, the same composites pioneered, for example, on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the next generation of rockets that will astronauts and cargo into space.
Composites are not only lighter than metal but they are better able to handle the high temperatures that supersonic flight generates on the airplane’s surfaces—up to more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
The second advance is in engine technology. There are no jet engines designed specifically for commercial supersonic flight. The Boom jet will be powered by taking an engine currently in use for subsonic flight (the choice of engine is not yet made) and making it more compact. It will be far more fuel efficient than were the Concorde’s engines.
All this technology is being conjured into a form of elite travel based on a manic schedule. For example, a passenger will be able to leave New York at 6 a.m., arrive in London in time for lunch, spend a total of seven hours there and be back in New York at 8 p.m., just in time for cocktails and dinner.
The North Atlantic routes are seen as the honeypot for this coming generation of hot jets. According to a study revealed by Aviation Week, the demand for supersonic transatlantic flights is so great that to satisfy it airlines will need more than 350 airplanes of the size of the Boom jet.
In theory the economics of the Boom jet make it possible that seats could be sold for the same price as business class on a regular subsonic jet, but nobody really believes that an airline would choose to do that. After all, most of the people who want to fly faster want to be seen as a class apart, and would pay a premium for status alone.
And guess who is first in line with options to buy the first 10 Boom jets? None other than Richard Branson, master peddler of expensive joy rides into space, on behalf of his company Virgin Galactic (first trip into space promised by 2009, still waiting).
Boom plans to be flying passengers by 2023. But that airplane and its accommodations will seem relatively plebian when set against the Aerion AS2, intended as the first supersonic corporate jet.
Aerion, based in Reno, Nevada, is developing the AS2 with Airbus, the European aerospace giant. With a top speed of 1,000 mph, the AS2 will not be as fast as the Boom jet, but even then it will cut the current best time for a flight by subsonic corporate jet between Paris and Washington, D.C., of 7 hours and 50 minutes to just 4 hours and 45 minutes.
And because it is pioneering an advanced wing design (not dart-shaped but straight wings that look as sharp as knife blades) it has more planet-friendly behavior. At top speed cruising over water the AS2 will still produce a boom, but it can also fly over land at well above the speed of sound, 800mph, without causing a boom on the ground (the shock wave dissipates before reaching the ground).
One of Concorde’s more spectacular features was that it cruised at 60,000 feet, some 20,000 feet higher than subsonic jets, and this gave passengers a view of the horizon that clearly revealed the curvature of the earth. The AS2 will cruise at 51,000 feet, 9.6 miles high, but the curvature will still be visible.
In its basic configuration the AS2 will have a luxurious eight-seat cabin, although some of the people likely to buy it can settle for fewer seats and far more opulent furnishings like a personal suite with a bedroom and bathroom.
America has the largest fleet of subsonic corporate jets in the world, more than 12,000 of them. The most advanced, like the Gulfstream 650 or the French Dassault Falcon 8X, cost between $58 million and $67 million. The AS2 is priced at $120 million—so the cost of entry to this, the most exclusive branch of the Nine Mile High Club, will be limited to only those corporations that reckon their executives best time management strategy involves shrinking the globe—or to those to whom that kind of money is little more than the price of another house in the Hamptons.
If this seems like a new age of plutocracy with every extravagant whim catered for, it needs to be said that, in fact, it is just the latest step in the long history of travel as a signifier of wealth.
During its first few decades airline flying was normally only ever within reach of the relatively wealthy. For example, in 1933, when United Airlines began the first flights between Newark and San Francisco using a revolutionary new airliner, the Boeing 247, the one-way fare was $160, about equal to $3,000 today—and that was in the Great Depression.
As they developed their roles as a luxury form of travel, the airlines were actually following the pattern of railroad travel.
When transcontinental railroad trips became commonplace in America in the 1880s the lowest coast-to-coast fare was less than $30. But Pullman cars provided an altogether different concept of travel for the wealthy—so-called hotel cars on the Chicago to Omaha route, for example, had dining cars where there were as many as 15 seafood dishes and 37 meat dishes, as well as game, on the menus.
But plutocrats of the Gilded Age did not settle for mere gluttony. They ordered their own cars from Pullman, at a cost of $500,000 each. J. P. Morgan’s car had an open fireplace burning balsam logs. The railroad baron Jay Gould reserved one of his own four cars for a cow to provide his own milk supply. When the banker Henry Flagler opened up the railroad between the northeast cities and Florida his fellow titans traveled south in cars replete with marble baths, hidden safes and bedrooms emulating those in their Fifth Avenue mansions.
Airline travel was not really democratized until the economics of the first wide-body jet, the 747 introduced coach class prices within reach of many. Then a later generation of fuel-efficient jets made budget airlines viable. Inevitably, each action taken to widen the net of air travel brought a reaction in upscaling the quality of service until the modern airline cabin became a microcosm of self-selecting classes. Innovations like premium economy between coach and business have made the distinctions even more subtle.
Looking at the bigger picture, the fly-faster crowd are pushing technology in a counter-intuitive direction, away from fuel economy and the greening of aviation.
The aviation industry is under increasing pressure to cut emissions. Airline emissions were left out of the Paris climate treaty accords. Under its two self-serving organizations, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association, the industry has agreed to cap its carbon footprint in a series of steps lacking any sense of urgency—they don’t become really tough until 2035.
However, airplane and engine designers have shown more vision and resolve. The fuel efficiency of the next generation of airliners will be at least 20 percent better, and advances in aerodynamics and new materials could push that figure to 50 percent in the next 20 years. At the same time, emissions-free flight is in the first stage of flight testing with all-electric propulsion.
Curiously, NASA, still an essential research base for future airplanes, doesn’t seem to have got this message. It is using its funds to help Lockheed Martin to develop what is called, euphemistically, the Quiet Supersonic Transport. This would be more than twice the size of the Boom jet, with up to 120 seats and able, like the AS2, to fly supersonically over land without creating a boom.
But in terms of environmental sensitivity and public policy it seems that this is not a good role for NASA to pursue using public money to subsidize the research for a major corporation. Lockheed Martin is getting $20 million for the preliminary design work for a small prototype to test the concept of a “low boom” jet—NASA officials have predicted a “soft thump” rather than a window-rattler.
This looks like a needless case of corporate welfare in view of the fact that Boom and Aerion are doing the same work using privately raised capital (in the case of Boom from Silicon Valley investors), creating their own body of proprietary knowledge. Rather than a soft thump, NASA needs to be on the receiving end of a sharp boom and answer why it is chasing this essentially elitist project at all.