The need for speed
“Slow down.” “Not so fast.” “What’s your rush?” “Whoa.”
Most of us started hearing such admonitions as toddlers, and I think we may be genetically wired to be wary of speed. On the other hand, we’re literally wired through technology to demand it.
The idea of speed has always generated anxiety, even in communications. “There can be no rational doubt that the telegraph has caused vast injury,” groused a late-adopting correspondent in the New York Times on Aug. 19, 1858, three days after the first successful test of an undersea cable between the U.S. and Europe. The dispatch described “telegraphic intelligence” as “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth.”
There has also been resistance to speedy transportation innovations. In 1912, after the sinking of the Titanic—which had been promoted for its transatlantic speed—a cartoon in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper depicted a man labeled “Modern Civilization.” Arm outstretched over the wings of an raven marked “Risk,” the man wore a blindfold labeled “Speed Madness” as he moved through an abyss that contained the words “danger,” “disaster,” and “death.”
Which brings us to the issue of regenerating the supersonic airplane, a concept that halted with the scrapping of the Concorde airliners in 2003. Now there is growing, and sometimes anxious, discussion about development of new supersonic transport.
“Speed Kills: Why planes aren’t getting any faster—and won’t any time soon,” reads a headline on a report issued last April by Future Tense, a research collaboration among Arizona State University, Slate, and New America, a think tank. “The obstacles to fast jet travel remain very high, and if anything they are getting higher,” said the report.
The most viable supersonic transport initiatives, in terms of both engineering and economics, seem to involve business jets. One such project is the $120 million AS2, which Reno, Nevada-based Aerion Corporation is developing in partnership with Airbus. [See our October/November 2016 issue for a preview of this aircraft. —Ed.] The first flight of the 20-seat business jet, which would have a top speed of Mach 1.5, is planned for 2021, with entry into service in 2023. Flexjet, the fractional-jet-share company, said last year that it had placed a firm order for 20 AS2s.
Boston-based Spike Aerospace also is developing a supersonic jet, in partnerships with other aerospace companies. Its S-512—which will have a windowless cabin to reduce weight and sonic boom—will have a maximum cruising speed of Mach 1.6. Lockheed Martin, too, is working on the sonic-boom hurdle and is in early development of a much larger 80-seat model called the N+2.
Addressing skeptics, Spike Aerospace CEO Vik Kachoria insisted that a viable market exists for supersonics, at least in the business jet world. In a recent Bloomberg webcast, he said he often needs to travel to Dubai, “but it’s a 12-hour flight from Boston, not something I want to do regularly. If I can bring that flight down to six hours, I would probably go there once a month. Building those face-to-face relationships is critical for business; you need to be there, to shake hands, look someone in the eye, have casual conversations.”
Be that as it may, a luxury Concorde-style supersonic operated by scheduled airlines might be pie in the sky, even if one could be economically built and operated. Commercial air travel might be miserable for most passengers, but for those in first-class and business-class cabins on international trips on premium airlines, the golden age of air travel is now. These passengers are cosseted in lie-flat-bed luxury, and enjoy gourmet food and fine wine en route. Even in coach, passengers have ready access to instant communications via Wi-Fi. That leaves speed alone as the major selling point for supersonic travel and, for many people, that might not be enough to justify the price tag.
Business jet travelers could be the exception to the rule, however. And while Future Tense’s report expressed deep skepticism about supersonic aircraft, it nevertheless conceded that models like the Aerion AS2 will likely find a market. “The top end of the business jet market is virtually price-elastic,” the report said.
Joe Sharkey the author of six books and a long-time BJT contributor, wrote a weekly business travel column for the New York Times for 16 years.