It has been almost 20 years since Concorde last flew; will we see a return to supersonic commercial travel before the decade is out? Two of the USA’s biggest carriers seem convinced. American Airlines this week became the latest big name to commit to operating Boom Supersonic’s in-development Overture airliner. Its agreement for 20 examples of the 65-seat jet followed rival United Airlines, which last year said it would take 15 Overtures.
Like many start-ups, things are happening slower for Boom than it anticipated. It is well behind its original objective for having the faster-than-sound aircraft in service by the early 2020s. Now it is targeting 2029. However, as well as the airline commitments, the company has secured the backing of several major suppliers, though crucially not yet an engine provider. The firm is building a factory in North Carolina, and later this year plans to fly a scaled supersonic demonstrator.
Doubters point to last year’s collapse of Aerion, another would-be supersonic jet innovator, which also had blue-chip investors, suppliers and customers. Boom’s founder Blake Scholl says the crucial difference is his business model. Boom is marketing its aircraft at airlines rather than exclusive private aviation companies, and expects tickets on the Overture to be a similar price to business class fares on conventional airlines today.
It believes that by halving the time of transoceanic services – such as San Francisco to Tokyo or London to Miami – Overture customers will have no problem attracting passengers. The drawback is that, although aircraft technology has come on hugely since the design of Concorde in the 1960s, the laws of physics remain the same. Boom – aptly perhaps given its name – has not found a way of getting rid of the noise an aircraft makes when it breaks the sound barrier.
Scholl says this does not matter, as most Overture flights will be over water, where few will hear any sonic boom: the aircraft will fly subsonic across land. However, its distinctive roar was one reason the French and British developers of Concorde were unable to make a business case for the iconic airliner beyond the Paris and London to New York routes operated by Air France and British Airways. Most jurisdictions banned the aircraft from flying at more than Mach 1.
In other news, Cathay Pacific continues its resurgence after Hong Kong’s strict measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 kept it effectively grounded for much longer than many of its international peers. It expects a strong boost in traffic to the UK and USA through September – boosted by travelling students – as well as a robust cargo season this winter. However, although it is carrying four times the passengers it was a year ago, the total is still less than 7% of its pre-pandemic number.
Other airlines that survived the pandemic, and are rebuilding traffic numbers, face old familiar challenges, including labour disputes. Portuguese flag carrier TAP insists it will carry on with a restructuring effort, including proposed cuts to salaries, despite the opposition of unions. The latter argue that with activity back to 90% of 2019 levels, there is no need for such brutal action. TAP says the moves are necessary and promises to restore salaries from 2025 if the restructuring is successful.
The heyday of amphibious airliners was in the 1930s, and several smaller floatplanes – including De Havilland Twin Otters – operate to water landing sites today. Now US regional airline Tailwind plans to launch flights between New York harbour and the Washington DC area, one of the USA’s most popular travel corridors, using Cessna Grand Caravans. The 90min flights will operate twice daily. Tailwind already operates a similar service between the harbours of New York City and Boston.
Finally, forest fires have been much in the news with climate change likely to be increasing their frequency and intensity. Water bombers are in the front line of the effort to contain them, but many of the aircraft used are ageing and there are not enough of them. Now industry representatives are pushing ICAO to make it easier to adapt types for firefighting. Although modifications themselves are often not complicated, cumbersome national approval processes make it hard for these specialist aircraft to move from country to country. Internationally agreed standards, they argue, would help create a flexible fleet of specialist aircraft able to respond rapidly to crises around the world.
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