Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill which tells the Federal Aviation Administration to reconsider its stance on supersonic (civilian) aircraft in U.S. airspace. Currently, these are banned because of the noise they produce when breaking through the sound barrier, but they could reduce flight times by more than 50%. In the past, only the French-British Concorde offered supersonic commercial flights, but operations were cancelled because of high (fuel) costs and the fact that aircraft could only go supersonic once they flew over the Atlantic. Today, a new generation of supersonic aircraft is being developed by incumbents (e.g. Boeing and Lockheed Martin) and startups (e.g. Spike and Boom) and, because they produce far less noise, the ban on supersonic may be lifted.
What does this mean?
From a historical perspective, it makes sense for mankind to go supersonic. Throughout history, people have travelled for an average of 1.1 hours/day (i.e. the so-called travel-time budget), but ever faster modes of transport have allowed us to travel farther and, for instance, move to suburbs or travel across the globe without exceeding this time budget. After the mass commercialization of jet aircraft (which are even slower today than in the past), supersonic flight would be the next logical step. Thanks to developments in lightweight materials (e.g. carbon composites) and modelling tools to improve hull designs (to minimize or divert the supersonic boom), operating these aircraft could become a commercial option in the near to longer term future (e.g. Boom aims for 2023, Boeing speaks of 20-30 years).
Supersonic flight has always been controversial and it’s likely to remain so in the future due to environmental concerns. At the same time, it’s quite plausible that many (rich) travelers would be willing to pay a premium for drastically reduced flight times (e.g. from New York to London in 2-3 hours). And for airports (and the cities they are connected to), it would be tempting to welcome supersonic jets as they could bring in high-value passengers and related economic development. Even more so, supersonic aircraft (similar to Formula One racing) may trigger (sustainable) technological innovation which could then trickle down to regular jet aircraft as well (e.g. hydrogen-powered aircraft).