Aerion AS2
Aerion AS2

Are Supersonic Business Jets a Good Idea?

Yes, says our columnist. In fact, they make more sense now than they would have in the days of the Concorde.

Even the most virulent critic of developing a supersonic business jet has to admit—at least deep down—that crossing oceans and continents in a few short hours would be pretty cool. It would take us one step closer to science fiction. For thousands of years, human flight of any kind was science fiction. The seminal goal of all forms of transportation—since the invention of the wheel—has always been to get there in less time, wherever “there” might be. Higher, farther, and faster has always been the holy trinity worshiped by aircraft designers.

Ergo, if a regular business jet is a good idea, wouldn’t a supersonic one be that much better? To answer that, we need to weigh the cost against the benefit. One place to start is at the advent of the jet age, around the middle of the last century.

Early jet airliners had one main benefit. They were faster that previous aircraft, cutting flight time from New York to Paris by more than half. “Only seven hours to brush up on your French,” read one Pan Am ad.

But their liabilities were not inconsequential. They needed longer runways, burned lots more fuel, made much more noise, and left four long plumes of sooty smoke on every takeoff. Back then, however, these airliners spelled progress and few people objected, even if they weren’t members of the jet set.

Since then, fuel burn and emissions have been reduced by 80 percent compared with those of the first Boeing 707s. We’re now setting Stage 5 noise standards for the next generation of high-bypass turbofans—four generations quieter than the original “blowtorch” turbojets. But airport access for airliners has remained pretty much comparable, which is where business aviation came in.

Early business jets arrived shortly after the first jet airliners. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Lear Jets (the brand name used to be two words), Sabreliners, and JetStars started replacing repurposed World War II piston bombers and cargo planes as executive transports. Even the airline Pan Am launched a private-jet charter arm using Dassault Falcons built in France—sourced by none other than Charles Lindbergh.

Going virtually anywhere on their own schedule proved invaluable for corporate travelers, even in piston aircraft; and adding jet speeds—which caught business flying up with the airlines—made business aviation even more indispensable. Over the years since, business aircraft have matched or exceeded airliners’ progress in mission versatility, fuel efficiency, and environmental cleanliness.

So, is a supersonic business jet the next step? Or would the environmental cost be too great? Unfortunately, some misleading numbers muddy the answers to those questions.

For example, one of the leading reports critical of supersonic air travel bases its statistics on “current technology.” The report doesn’t specify, but is it reasonable to assume that means either today’s Mach-2+ military aircraft or the only civil supersonic aircraft ever certified, the Anglo-French Concorde airliner?

The warfighting mission of military aircraft arguably overrides environmental concerns. And the Concorde, along with its four massive Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus afterburning engines, was designed in the era when the Boeing 707 ruled the skies. All current design programs involving supersonic civil aircraft not only are based on 21stcentury research but are subject to current noise and emissions standards.

As for sonic booms, the Boeing-backed Aerion S2 supersonic business jet, for one, is designed to fly as effectively at subsonic speeds as it does at Mach 1.4. The Concorde was able to fly only overwater routes. GE’s airliner-based Affinity engine, earmarked for the Aerion program, also meets Stage 5 noise and emissions standards.

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Further, NASA research is showing promising results in exploring complex algorithms for mitigating a sonic boom. If NASA can prove that true “current technology” in fact defeats the sonic boom, thus-outdated regulations could be amended to permit overland supersonic flight.

But the political optics of a supersonic business jet remain a “wall in the sky” that rivals the sound barrier first broken in 1947. Maybe one way to convince society of the acceptability (if not the coolness) of supersonic travel would be to ask average motorists whether they could envision situations where it would be worth more money—and even more emissions—to cut drive time in half, or better. Not for every trip, but for when there’s an important enough reason to get there that much faster. 

Such an alternative already exists—the airplane. Jet travel is now commonplace; a situation no one envisioned when the 707 first went into service. Maybe it’s time to take the next step, not to darken the skies with Mach-busting jets, as critics fear, but for the times when those extra hours saved might, indeed, be worth the cost. The supersonic business jet can lead the way.