Are supersonic planes the next big thing?

A view of the Spanish coast line from an airplane

A view of the Spanish coast line from an airplane

Defne Doken

When is the last time you have been on a plane? For most people, the pandemic has significantly dropped the frequency of flights taken. However, as the world’s countries reopen and airports get busy, it might be time to take a look at the current state of air travel and what new innovations could come in the near future.

Ever since the airplane’s invention in 1903, travel by air has undergone many changes. Yet, despite revolutionizing the way Americans conduct work and travel, air travel has its limitations and frustrations. Expensive tickets, tedious airport security checks, and airlines notoriously providing terrible service are a part of the reason that traveling by plane has turned into such a nightmare for many travelers. However, one of the most frustrating aspects of plane travel are their lengthy durations. For many common international travelers, this can be an almost tortuous lifestyle. Currently, the longest plane flight is considered to be from Singapore to New York which clocks in at nearly 19 shuddering hours. Long plane flights like these are not healthy and have been linked to complications including dehydration, infections, blood clots, and cancer-causing radiation. With all these risks, what is the solution? One idea is supersonic planes: planes that can fly faster than the speed of sound.

As the first commercially used supersonic plane, the Concorde could fly long-distances at revolutionary speeds. Introduced in 1976 and later discontinued in 2003, the Concorde was a classic example of a bright idea in theory that failed in execution. It was able to cross the Atlantic ocean in a record 3 hours and could fly at amazing speeds of up to 1,354 miles per hour. However, due to its sonic booms, a result of surpassing the speed of sound, the Concorde was extremely loud. Additionally, it was incredibly costly at $12,000 per round-trip ticket. Above all, its most glaring flaw was its unreliability. Tragically, on a flight from Paris to New York City on July 25th, 2000, a fuel tank rupture caused the aircraft to burst into flames and all on board were killed. This devastating event was the end of the road for the Concorde.

Despite issues and past failures, what does the present have to offer for future air travel innovation? Surprisingly, many companies are now looking back to supersonic plane technology in hopes for a way to cut down on long-haul flight times.

Currently, a company called Boom Supersonic is working on bringing supersonic plane technology to consumers for just $100 a ticket! United Airlines is the first US airline that has agreed to purchase some of Boom Supersonic’s planes, which are dubbed “Overture.” Overture will allegedly fly at speeds like the Concorde while also being environmentally friendly. The plane will be able to travel from Newark to London in just 3.5 hours instead of 6.5, cutting travel time by almost half. The company plans to start construction of the planes in 2023 and everyday passengers are expected to be able to board in about the year 2029.

Along with Boom Supersonic, NASA also has a low-boom supersonic plane in the works: the Langley Research Center’s X-59 supersonic plane, which has just received funding of about $100 million from the federal budget plan. It is being specially designed to combat the loud boom noises of past supersonic planes and will reportedly have a cruising speed of 925 mph, which is almost double the commercial airplane average cruise speed of 547 mph. 

Furthermore, the Chinese company, Beijing Lingkong Tianxing Technology, has just reported the development of a supersonic plane that can travel from New York to China in just 60 minutes! The plane is designed to be used for space travel as a “rocket with wings.” The company predicts that the first flight on the plane will occur by 2024.

The stagnation of air travel times over the past few decades is a sign that the industry is itching for innovation. In a world that is rapidly globalizing, lightning-speed travel is a must. Mr. Leister, who teaches aerospace engineering at Radnor High School, believes that “The concept of supersonic travel is really exciting. It’s amazing to think how far aeronautical and aerospace engineering has come in just over 100 years. There is a great deal of time and money being put into supersonic and hyper-sonic travel both manned and unmanned.” Moreover, he says that “With the amount of money being invested from private industries, I think the idea of supersonic travel will be here sooner than we think, and hopefully much safer than the issues that occurred with the Concorde.” If you have planned a trip by plane for this upcoming spring break, you are likely one of many who are returning to regular air travel. In a historic uptick in air-travel traffic following the lockdowns of the pandemic, perhaps a sort of renaissance has dawned onto the landscape of travel by flight. Thus, travelers can hopefully expect to see more revolutionary inventions in the field of supersonic plane technology.