Much of modern life has improved since the 1970s. Not so air travel: Getting from New York to London takes roughly as long now as it did in the days of disco. Could that be about to change?
Nearly 20 years after the Concorde made its final touchdown, supersonic flight is once again becoming a tantalizing possibility. A handful of enterprising companies are now manufacturing next-generation jets that can exceed the speed of sound and dramatically reduce flight times. Warren Buffett’s NetJets just ordered 20 of them from the startup Aerion, at about $120 million apiece. UBS reckons the total market for supersonics could reach $340 billion by 2040.
These jets differ from their predecessors in key respects. Improvements in aircraft design, materials science and engine systems ensure that they’ll be lighter, quieter, more efficient and less polluting. Clever engineering is helping to reduce or eliminate the impact of the “sonic booms” that they create. Abundant private investment means they should be free of the government meddling that bedeviled the Concorde. Not incidentally: They look awesome.
Unfortunately, there are impediments to the supersonic dream.
One is concern about noise. This led the Federal Aviation Administration to prohibit supersonic flight over land in the U.S. in 1973, and the ban is still in place. The FAA should replace the ban with a targeted noise standard. A threshold of, say, 90 decibels — or about the same noise level as a lawnmower or motorcycle — would protect those living beneath flight paths while still allowing supersonics to flourish.
A second issue is atmospheric pollution. Many of the worries raised about supersonic travel — such as risks to the ozone layer — pose less of a threat than once thought. Others, including increased carbon emissions, could be mitigated by technology.
Although the FAA is clearly rethinking things — in January, it relaxed rules for supersonic test flights — it needs to move faster to ensure that American companies take the lead in this promising new field.
Concerns about such a powerful technology shouldn’t be dismissed. But with the right rules in place, the age of supersonic travel is nothing to fear. It should be welcomed with open arms — and open skies.