Covid could accelerate rebirth of commercial supersonic flight

Published: 12 October 2020 - 5 a.m.

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated airlines and aircraft manufactures alike, causing R&D budgets to plumment and demand for new jets to tumble.

On the face of it, this looks like bad news for concept aircraft and developers of commercial supersonic jet technology.

But the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic could instead inspire the world to drive harder for a new age of supersonic flight.

That is according to Tom Vice, CEO of Aerion Supersonic, which is developing a business jet aiming to be the first supersonic aircraft to operate commercially since Concorde’s retirement in 2003.

“Clearly the pandemic has had a significant impact on all manner of businesses and none less so than the aviation business,” Vice told Aviation Business. “We’re sympathetic to the industry around us which has endured significant strain in light of the pandemic.”

He said that in terms of the impact of the pandemic on viable supersonic travel, the experiences of this year have demonstrated “the value of human connections and the only commodity we cannot make more of – time”.

“If anything, it merely strengths our determination to usher in a new era of supersonic flight and ensure a future where humanity can spend less time flying and more time making those human connections and doing the things they love.”

Aerion’s AS2 will not launch onto the market until 2027, providing all goes smoothly, but the $120 million, 1,074 mph jet already has an order backlog of $3 billion.

Aerion’s peers are also continuing with and expanding on ambitious supersonic plans in spite of the current economic climate and damage to the air travel industry.

Virgin Galactic in May announced that it was partnering with NASA to develop new technologies that can be applied to high-speed vehicles for point-to-point commercial travel across the globe. Virgin’s plans for hypersonic travel include an aircraft that can carry up to 19 people at speeds of Mach 3.

US firm Spike Aerospace is also planning a supersonic passenger jet designed to offer high-speed point-to-point travel.

Aerion, of which Boeing owns a stake, plans to raise further cash from investors over the next few years before the firm creates a production model of the AS2 in 2025.

The company is for now targeting the business aviation market, which Vice said is an existing, mature and robust market where customers pay a premium for speed. Business aviation is one of the sectors in aviation which has seen an upswing in recent months as First and Business Class passengers have turned away from commercial airlines.

Vice said: “We believe there is an opportunity within the existing business jet market to create a new segment based on the differentiation of radically enhanced speed, delivering what the customer wants – fast, point to point connectivity.

“However, our longer-term goal is to make supersonic flight more accessible to more people. Our starting point is a business jet but as is proven, most emerging technology innovations initially launch in niche, luxury markets – where production volumes are relatively small, and the customer is comfortable with premium pricing. We believe this to be true of supersonic flight and adoption in the business jet market will pave the way for commercial supersonic development.”

As well as economic barriers, the need for sustainability is another potential hurdle for supersonic flight.

But Vice said that he does not believe speed and protection of the environment need to be mutually exclusive.

“It is important not just to fly fast but do so in a way that is environmentally responsible,” he said.

“Our commitment is to be carbon neutral not by some arbitrary future date, but from flight one.

“We take environmental stewardship very seriously and as part of mission to bring supersonic mobility to the world, we are committed to addressing climate change in doing so – our intent is to be part of the solution to reverse it.”

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