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Supersonic Transport: Back to the Future of Air Travel Essay

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Updated: Feb 16th, 2022

Supersonic transport (SST) was a phenomenal invention that revolutionized the air traveling industry. With a never-seen speed and convenience, the aircraft was able to transport the passengers across the globe twice quicker than any other type of airplane. However, its benefits came with a price: from the start of the SST business, many communities have reported disturbances because of the excessive noise, while passengers themselves stated that the costs were overwhelming. More than that, with the steady rise of concern about Global Warming and CO2 emissions, the governments of numerous countries were growing increasingly worried about the environmental impact of SST. These obstacles resulted in the eventual shutdown of the newest air travel industry. However, recently a newfound interest in this type of transportation started to emerge again. Given its extreme time efficiency, the comeback of SST was inevitable. This paper will describe the history of supersonic transport, address the challenges it faced, as well as introduce new developments of next-generation aviation that might be implemented soon.

Historically, supersonic aircraft was an invention that transformed long-distance traveling. Two companies that offered their passengers SST were Concord and Tupolev, and their jets were “powered by turbojet engines with afterburners, which led to high fuel burn and takeoff noise” (Kharina et al. 2). One Concord aircraft, for instance, could carry up to 140 passengers and transport them from point A to point B with a speed of “55,000 feet and a range of 4000 nmi” (Roper et al. 3). By achieving the speed of sound, it allowed travelers to board a plane in New York, and arrive to London three hours later, making it one of the best options in the market.

Despite the SST’s revolutionary success and efficient results, governmental policy banned supersonic flight in 2003. Although excessive fuel burning and takeoff noise were the necessary components to make the experience as fast as the market demanded, these characteristics were also deemed as the main reasons for the ban. Apart from noise pollution that disrupted communities close to the airports, immoderate fuel usage to achieve the speed of sound was associated with an alarming CO2 levels increase and the destruction of the ozone layer (Sun and Smith 9). These environmental threats left governments no choice but to restrict supersonic travel.

Significant engineering challenges of SST aviation are the engine fuel consumption and sonic boom sound. Firstly, the benefits of next-generation jets are mostly a compromise for other downsides. The speed of the aircraft requires a significant amount of energy, which then results in harmful emissions. Noise, in its turn, is an integral part of the launch that is hard to minimize. The obstacles above result in significant issues for the modernization of the technology to fit the current policy. Due to the weight and size of the plane, designing a smaller, lighter, noise, and emission-low model that is still capable of the speed of sound is nearly impossible, making it the primary problem (Sun and Smith 1). Therefore, to reintroduce SST to the market, notable technological improvements are needed.

As it concerns the business and economic challenges for operating a supersonic airliner, they come down to costs and a vague legislative framework. After the ban of the industry in 2003, no new SST policies have been introduced to neither U.S. nor international aviation. Governments consider applying sub-sonic regulations if SST manages to return (Kharina et al. 3). However, the uncertainty of the future policy makes it hard to develop the company and its planes now. The businesses also have to take into account not only compliance with vague rules but also the threat of their absence, which might turn out as extra expenses. As Kharina et al. explain, “Without international standards providing regulatory certainty that their aircraft can be sold and operated worldwide, major manufacturers will be reluctant to invest in new designs” (3). Consequently, many current airlines hesitate to get involved and the industry lacks financial support. Also, solving engineering problems might add to the cost risks, as designing low noise, emissions, and fuel burn design has been associated with costly expenses (Sun and Smith 5). Overall, operating SST airline is indeed a hard task from a both legal and economic standpoint.

Nonetheless, despite numerous engineering, economic, and legal obstacles in supersonic flights, the recent interest in the banned technology has provoked companies to develop a new generation of SST. Three major startup companies that actively work on bringing restricted travel back to the market are Spike Aerospace, Aerion Corporation, and Boom Supersonic. The need for convenience and time-effectiveness might explain the recovered investment in supersonic travel despite the overwhelming cost of the service. Sun and Smith elaborate on the customers’ new-found need, “Recognition of the value of time has led to increased interest in the feasibility of small supersonic business jets (SSBJ)” (1). More than that, characteristics like safety, privacy, and flexibility that are unique to SST have been adding value to the development of the industry. Thus, it is safe to say that the return of supersonic jets is a question of time.

On the other hand, as several companies develop the new generation of aircraft to re-enter the market, the challenges previously associated with SST’s dangers are reevaluated and solved. This urges next-generation engineering decisions to minimize the risks. For instance, Roper et al. explain how one of the ways to reduce the amount of needed fuel and weight of the aircraft is to hollow the blades of the engine, as well as other parts (27). A fighter jet requires less energy, making it less fuel-demanding. Another solution to an issue of extreme takeoff noise pollution might lie in the insolation of the engine or increasing the diameter of the fan (Roper et al. 36). These newly applied properties, in combination with many other solutions, make a new generation of SST safe for the environment and, consequently, viable for fitting the expected legal framework.

In conclusion, despite the initial supersonic travel being environmentally unsafe and economically non-profitable, the market demand for safety and time-efficiency brings the technology back to life. While providing extreme comfort in terms of both time and accessibility, past SST has been associated with numerous engineering challenges and pollution. However, the new generation of jets finds practical solutions to the issues discovered during the last century to allow passengers to enjoy the service without worrying about the environmental imprint of their convenience.

Works Cited

Kharina, Anastasia, et al. International Council on Clean Transportation, 2018. Web.

Roper, Christopher, et al. “Innovation in Commercial Supersonic Aircraft with Candidate Engine for Next Generation Supersonic Aircraft.” Digital Commons, vol. 1, 2018, pp. 1-134. Web.

Sun, Yicheng, and Howard Smith. “Review and Prospect of Supersonic Business Jet Design.” Progress in Aerospace Sciences, vol. 90, 2017, pp. 12–38. Web.

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