21 May 2019

It’s time to let Europe go supersonic

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When France built its high-speed rail network, it revolutionised the way we looked at train travel. What takes 4-5 hours by long-distance bus from Brussels to Paris can now be completed in just over an hour with a Thalys train. Dumping slow regional trains for fast and futuristic new models has brought more comfort and time-efficiency to consumers.

In aviation however, the opposite is the case. Since the 1960s, air travel hasn’t gotten any faster. According to Kate Repantis from MIT cruising speeds for commercial airliners today range between about 480 and 510 knots, compared to 525 knots for the Boeing 707, a mainstay of 1960s jet travel.

The reason for that is fuel-efficiency, which translates into cost-efficiency. While pilots have attempted to find the most efficient flight routes, it is slowing flights down which has effectively reduced fuel consumption. According to a story from NBC News in 2008, JetBlue saved about $13.6 million a year in jet fuel by adding just under two minutes to its flights.

But slowing things down doesn’t need to be the only alternative, and it will certainly shock passengers to learn that flight times are actually longer than 60 years ago. We can look at it this way: old regional trains are less electricity-consuming than current high-speed trains going at over 300 km/h, but there is precious little demand to bring travel times between Paris and London back to seven hours. In fact, as we use high-speed rail continuously, the technology improves and energy consumption is reduced. The same dynamic ought to work in aviation.

Supersonic planes have been out of the discussion in Europe for a while, but new innovations should make us reconsider our approach to this technology.

For long-distance intercontinental flights, supersonic planes cut flight time by more than half.  For instance, London-New York would go down from 7 hours to just 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Granted, the fuel-efficiency of current supersonic models isn’t yet ideal, but for a (re)emerging industry the only way from here is up. When considering the evolution of regular planes, which have become 80 per cent more efficient than the first airliners, there are good grounds for optimism about supersonic planes. What’s more, producers of supersonic planes are also supportive of alternative fuel use, a key part of the UN’s 2020 plan for carbon-neutral growth.

Faster flight times for consumers who like innovative solutions to environmental problems. What’s not to like?

The biggest catch is noise levels. As someone who grew up in a town neighbouring an airport, and having lived there almost 20 years, I know the differing views on airport noises. Many in my home village would defend the airport for economic reasons, while others would rally in associations of concerned citizens, fighting the airport one plane at a time. Over the years, their demands have found less support, because as planes became more efficient, they also made less noise.

Here is where supersonic planes aren’t starting from scratch either. While these aircrafts are louder on landing and take-off, new models, like Boom’s futuristic looking Overture,  are 100 times less noisy than the Concorde was. Furthermore, it would be important to compare those things that are comparable, in the same way that wouldn’t equate a regional jet with a large A380 with over 800 passengers. So yes, supersonic planes would be, at least for now, noisier. At the same time, the trade-off would entail faster travel times and the promise of lower emissions down the line.

The least we can do to increase consumer choice in this area is give supersonic a chance. Current regulations are not supportive of the fact that supersonic planes are fundamentally different than regular, subsonic, aircraft. There is a balance that both consumers and concerned citizens can strike, which looks at the questions of A) what we can realistically achieve in terms of reducing noise, and B) the advantageous trade-offs we’d get as a return of allowing Europe to go supersonic.

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Bill Wirtz is a policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center.