Recently, James Bridenstine, the Administrator of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) gave a presentation on the agency’s budget that he received from President Donald Trump. Among the projects he mentioned, was the potential to return to the age of supersonic air travel in the United States. His agency, he said, is currently working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to loosen or eliminate current regulations that prevent this kind of travel over the continent. These planes also need their own fleet of experts in newer maintenance for aircraft.
Today, supersonic commercial airplanes are not allowed to fly over the nation by the FAA. These regulations were put in place because the sonic booms created by these flights did damage and were disruptive. NASA has been working on new technology to reduce the impact sonic booms may have on their surroundings and make the idea of supersonic air travel more viable commercially.
Bridenstine went over his agency’s Aeronautics Research Directorate. He went over the advances they have been able to make in this area. He reported that these new advancements have made the reality of supersonic air travel more realistic. One new technology is Low-Boom products. NASA announced, back in 2018, that it would do a public test of the Low-Boom Flight technology sometime in 2022. This will make use of the Lockheed Martin X-59 QueSST, also called the Quiet Supersonic Transport. The goal of this test is to see if they can reduce the impact these planes have the surrounding communities.
Supersonic air travel over the United States continent was banned in 1973. This was because the FAA determined the sonic booms from the aircraft damaged structures, broke windows, and was bad for infrastructure. There are some loopholes in this ban. For instance, military jets are permitted to use supersonic planes to travel in some areas. For commercial flights, certain conditions must be met and these flights are only approved on a case-by-case basis. The most well-known supersonic plane was the Concorde. It was never able to fly over the continental U.S., was developed by French and English companies but had to be put to pasture in 2003. One of the reasons it lost money for the airlines who flew it is that it could never get people from the East to the West coast of the U.S. It was not because of poor maintenance for aircraft that flew at this speed.
Aerospace companies never really stopped looking into ways to make supersonic air travel, or even hypersonic air travel, commercially viable in the U.S. and around the world. The Aerion Corporation and Boom Aerospace have led the pack in this area.
While most people associate this kind of travel with the Concorde, there were other supersonic planes. The Tupolev Tu-144 started flying in 1968, a full year before the Concorde. The first time passengers took a flight on the Tupolev Tu-144 was in 1977, a full 12 months after the Concorde welcomed its first passengers. The problem with the Tupolev Tu-144 is that there were accidents. These were not due to a lack of maintenance for aircraft on the planes but the company switched to using it only for cargo, and they flew it for that until 1999.
Should supersonic air travel come back, it will force a number of changes to the way the air travel industry operates. This is an important industry for the country. The FAA has reported that the industry is responsible for the creation of 10.6 million jobs each year. In the first place, more people would have to be trained to conduct routine maintenance on these new planes. This would create a number of jobs in the aircraft maintenance world. New pilots would have to be trained. New meteorologists would need to be trained on different sky condition tolerance levels. These planes will require better vibration analysis to keep everyone safe.
The upside of this kind of travel is the shortened travel time. The downside is this will come at a cost. It would be more expensive to take these flights and the maintenance for aircraft will be pricier.
At the end of the day, the future looks bright for supersonic air travel.