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Saturday, March 19, 2016

Supersonic commuter jets: a solution in search of a problem

NASA recently announced the development of a new supersonic jet that can carrier passengers at around 1100 miles per hour, slower than the Concorde, which could go 1400 MPH went out of business years ago.  The great breakthrough with the new jet is that the sonic boom it makes is much quieter than older planes.

The sonic boom was not the Concorde's biggest problem.  The problem was that it cost a fortune to run and did not save that much time.  Lowering the sonic boom might allow the new jet to fly overland. The Concorde was limited to flights over the ocean.  Overland flights, however, don't benefit much from faster speeds.  Right now, a flight from LA to NY is about 2400 miles.  The new jet flying at maximum speed might make it there in 2 hrs, 20 minutes.  A standard Boeing jet in use today could do the same flight in about 4 hours.  But standard jets do not fly at their maximum speed. It wastes too much fuel and increases costs.  Therefore, a nonstop flight will probably take over 5 hours today. There just is not enough demand for the maximum speed.

Any traveler will tell you that the bulk of time spend during most domestic flights is not the time spent in flight.  It may take you an hour or more to reach the airport.  If you are parking, you may need another hour to get to the lot, find a commuter bus to take you to the terminal, then spend two hours in the airport going through security and dealing with the advance time airlines require to load luggage and passengers.  You may spend another two hours getting off the plane, collecting your luggage, getting to your ground transportation and then driving to your final destination.  As a result, you have spent six hours of travel time not counting any time actually being flown anywhere.  So a faster plane can cut your two hour flight to one hour.  You are still spending seven  hours of travel time instead of eight.  That is not a big deal, especially if it means your ticket will be four times the cost.  All of this does not include the common problems of flight delays.  It also does not calculate the fact that you must leave at a particular time which may mean more wasted time on either side of the flight before you make your appointment.

There are many wealthy people who gladly spend more money to save time and hassle.  But they are much better off spending that money on a limo to reduce time getting to and from the terminal, Investing in pre-clearance to get through airport security faster.  The very wealthy may even prefer a private jet which allows flexibility in when they leave or arrive and avoids much of the security delays for public carriers.  Making these changes to your ground strategy can save you possibly four or more hours of travel time, as opposed to an hour or two paying for a faster jet.

The faster jet may carry some appeal.  But supersonic planes are usually much smaller, meaning a smaller and more cramped cabin.  People who paid big money to fly the old Concorde were not impressed with the level of comfort on the plane.  If money is not the issue, a slower private jet would be much preferable.

For these reasons, private companies gave up on super sonic commercial flights years ago.  Without a way to make the faster flights as cheap as current jets, the improved speed is simply not worth the cost to virtually any customers.

NASA may have found a way to eliminate the big boom, but that was not really the problem.  NASA wants $300 million from Congress to develop the technology and build a miniature prototype that can carry exactly one passenger.  Presumably the cost would be in the billions to bring a small fleet into actual use.  While scientific advancements are always nice, paying for them when they have little practical application in the market makes no sense.

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