Investors, plane makers and equipment suppliers are pushing to revive superfast airliners and business jets. The big questions: Will regulators go along, and will passengers be willing to pay? The Concorde was an economic failure.
The latest efforts, highlighted by exhibits and discussions at the international air show here, reflect support from major aerospace companies, buttressed by promising research into reducing the sonic boom that occurs when planes exceed the speed of sound.
Backers include Boeing Co. BA 0.22% , Lockheed Martin Corp. LMT -0.49% and closely held Colorado startup Boom Technology Inc., which aims to start flying a reduced-size demonstration craft late next year. An initial goal for Boom’s proposed airliner is to slash the time for transcontinental trips by more than half. Round trips between the U.S. West Coast and Asia could be completed within the same day, for business travelers—the plush cabins would offer only premium seats—in a real hurry.
“This was the future we were all promised,” said Steven Isakowitz, president of Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit think tank for the Pentagon. In an interview earlier this month he cited both technical advances and “extremely interesting” NASA research into reducing the shock wave and noise.
“It’s going to be doable,” Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s chief executive, said in an interview at the show. He expects supersonic technology to be “viable within the next decade,” and that further advances will eventually allow flights connecting cities around the world within several hours. The bigger challenge is the economic case, he added: “Are there enough travelers who would pay a premium to fly faster?”
Boeing is still trying to answer that question. Will twice as fast be enough, “or do you really have to go a lot faster on a longer route?” asked Greg Hyslop, the company’s chief technology officer.
Weeks ago, Boeing unveiled a concept for a passenger-carrying hypersonic aircraft, theoretically capable of flying many times the speed of sound. But some experts predict it could be two decades away. Boeing declined to provide a timeline.
For Boom’s founder and chief executive, Blake Scholl, a decade is too long to wait. Buoyed by some early orders plus a strategic investment from Japan Airlines Co. , Boom has also benefited from the afterglow of successful startups such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Mr. Scholl said his company, which is roughly two years behind its original timetable, wants to end the era of air travel that is “low on excitement, low on progress and high on frustration.”
Closely held Aerion Supersonic has spent 16 years developing a super-swift business jet. General Electric Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. are backing plans for the latest version, the three-engine AS2, which aims for a maximum “super cruise” speed 1.4 times the speed of sound.
Among the prime marketing targets: People wealthy enough to pay a premium for speed “because they can,” chief executive Brian Barents said in an interview Tuesday.
Many proposals for supersonic airliners and business jets have surfaced and sunk over the years, brought down by reasons from high fuel prices to environmental concerns to Concorde-era rules barring civilian aircraft from breaking the sound barrier over U.S. territory.
Supersonic proponents have recently stepped up lobbying of lawmakers. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration has moved to begin a public dialogue over regulations.
The current debate isn’t over lifting the ban on breaking the sound barrier over land. Rather, it is about waiving or revising noise restrictions on planes climbing from or descending toward U.S. airports to begin or end supersonic routes over water.
Some recent innovations have prompted the FAA to consider whether there is a possibility of reintroducing supersonic flight, Carl Burleson, the agency’s acting deputy administrator, told a federal advisory group earlier this summer.
A fact sheet posted on the FAA’s website in May says “lighter and more efficient composite materials, combined with new engine and airframe designs” may make supersonic transport viable, so the agency plans to propose new rules. One would cover “the range of permissible supersonic operations”; the other, the procedures for gaining authorization for supersonic flight tests.