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Will supersonic make a comeback?

It’s nearly seven years since supersonic passenger aircraft Concorde was retired. As technology continues to develop in all other areas of aviation, will the day ever come when we will once again be able to fly at twice the speed of sound? We asked Mike Bannister, British Airways’ Chief Concorde Pilot for eight years, to share his thoughts.

“I personally think supersonic passenger aircraft will become a reality again. I don’t believe that the human race takes backward steps for very long and I think there will come a time when the combination of circumstances is right once more for work to start on developing another supersonic passenger aeroplane.

That aircraft will be different to Concorde [which flew from 1976 to 2003]. There is already talk of supersonic business jets, say 12-seaters, but I don’t think that will be the next major step. I’m sure there will be a supersonic airliner at some point in the future, and it’s likely that such an airliner would be different from Concorde in a number of ways.

Firstly, it would have to have trans-Pacific range, rather than trans-Atlantic range. Secondly it will probably be a multi-cabin aeroplane with three cabin classes, whereas Concorde was a single cabin class. It would also have to be bigger – probably carrying around 300 passengers – and more fuel efficient. The proposition that would be on offer would be something like, would the customer be prepared to pay, let’s say, a 20 percent premium over a subsonic fare to fly supersonic in economy, business or first class cabins? If we got to that stage, that proposition is not too unlikely. I think there are a lot of people who would be prepared to pay 20 percent more to get there in half the time.

The other technological aspect that would be amazing if it can be achieved – and this has been worked on for some time, with small teams at the major manufacturers still working on it – is a way of reducing the sonic boom. The sonic boom is actually an over-pressure caused by the aircraft traveling faster than the speed of sound. It’s not actually a sound, our ears just detect that over-pressure as a bang. If a method could be found to reduce that significantly, or even eliminate it totally and prevent it from reaching the ground, then we’re in a whole different ball game.

Concorde was only allowed to fly supersonically over water, with one or two very small exceptions over deserts. This ruled out a large number of potentially very profitable routes, the obvious one being the east to the west coast of the US. If you could – and it is becoming technologically more possible – stop that sonic boom reaching the land and you could fly supersonic aircraft over land, then that opens up a whole new group of routes and makes the aircraft potentially more commercially viable.

Other things also have to be in place. It would have to be a multi-national project, almost certainly between Europeans, North Americans, Japanese, maybe even Chinese, companies. So we need a political will to do that. Plus the financial circumstances have got to be right. I think it’s this aspect which is most likely to determine when the project might start. Technologically, it could be started tomorrow. Financially, the cost of such a project is so high that I can’t see it coming into fruition until Boeing has started to realize significant profits from the 787 program and Airbus from the A380. I can’t see that happening within ten years. So we’re probably ten years away from such a project starting and 25 years away from such an aircraft flying. But I’m optimistic that it will happen.”

To read the full interview with Mike Bannister, see the May 2010 issue of AkzoNobel’s A Magazine.

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