Colin Nagy, head of strategy at Fred & Farid, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. "On Experience" dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. You can read all of his columns here.
There are few realms where the world has actively regressed. But the demise of the Concorde saw air travel step back in significant ways. It was a pioneer in commercial flight that also made the world feel smaller. But it had its drawbacks: mechanical problems, operational cost, the need for lots of fuel, as well as the ticket price. But it was an incredible glimpse at the future that vanished from the tarmac forever.
As carriers today work on their route strategies, the traveling public is in awe of the range of the new ultra long haul flights. Newark to Singapore, Doha to Auckland. But the limits of the human body (and human attention span) are tested with these types of experiences that are reaching around 19 or 20 hours in a compressed tube. No matter how luxurious it may be, it is brutal.
The commodity that matters to people is time. Getting back and forth from that meeting, getting from point to point as efficiently as possible.
Aerion, the latest entrant into the new realm of supersonic jets, seeks to solve that issue. Tom Vice, Aerion’s CEO, explained how this value proposition can be real, sooner than we think. “Imagine that you have a young family in, say, Dallas, and a business joint venture in Shanghai. You need to go there a lot. But it’s a 35-hour proposition to get there (check American Airlines), and it takes a toll on you physically. It keeps you apart from your young family. It hampers your ability to work effectively with your colleagues in Shanghai. Suppose we could make that a 12- or 14-hour trip, including a quick connection.”
Stealing Time from Time
Now if you extrapolate that story outwards, it is easy to see that the effects on travel, productivity, and even capitalism as a whole can be significantly affected. While the first dawn of the jet age, now 60 years old, with all of its romance, had huge effects on the world, it started small, with a limited audience being able to access it, which grew with time easily to where we find ourselves today.
The advances required of this next wave in innovation aren’t just a turbine engine that powered the last step change in travel. It requires a serious R&D effort with GE. Vice explained: “In October, we unveiled a GE engine—the first civil supersonic engine developed in 55 years—that meets the stringent takeoff and landing noise restrictions that come into effect in 2020. As a result, the [jet] will fly over land at speeds up to Mach 1.2 (about 50 percent faster than today’s airliners) without a boom reaching the ground.”
Solving for the Boom
The noise was the greatest challenge in engineering a new wave of supersonic flight. The same issues that plagued the Concorde — and annoyed the neighbors — are the same here. Vice calls the sonic boom the “biggest problem” with a supersonic flight over land: “…that annoying double crack when a supersonic aircraft passes overhead.” He said NASA and Lockheed Martin are developing new aerodynamic concepts called “boom shaping” that will reduce the crack to something more like the rumble of distant thunder. Lockheed Martin, who is co-developing the plane with Aerion, is developing the X-59 experimental aircraft under contract to NASA to test these low-boom aerodynamic concepts.
In the meantime, the company is designing their debut product, the AS2, for maximum aerodynamic efficiency to achieve a reasonable cost of operation and long-range. The company says that while it will not be able to operate unfettered over land, it will be able to run up to Mach 1.2, which is much faster than aircraft today, in a mode that they are calling branding “Boomless Cruise.” At these speeds, the plane will produce a weak sonic boom that will dissipate before reaching the ground.
Because of the length of flights, the experience may not need to be the decadent suites and cabins we know today — instead, there is a focus on “comfortable pressurization, minimizing noise and vibration, and improving connectivity.” Getting there faster is the most important thing, and due to design considerations and space constraints in the initial business jet iterations, one might not need a full bed or the accouterments that people salivate over today.
Flying with the initial iterations of the aircraft won’t be for the budget-minded traveler. The product will be a luxury-priced product, focused on executives. But Vice suggests a natural adoption curve indicating “It will be like the first cell phones or jetliners, or cars for that matter—expensive at first, with costs descending a relatively predictable curve as further investment leads to advances in technology and cost reduction.”
He said they are starting with a business jet because “we can close the business case, the technological case, the environmental case, and regulatory case with this type of aircraft.”
Vice later suggested they have a longer-term, 50-year roadmap that sees the technology used by larger airlines carrying more passengers, and that it is “reasonable to expect that young professionals today will be routinely flying supersonic airliners in the course of their careers.”
Vice doesn’t know the exact future of larger planes, but he alludes a day where there is the potential of a Mach 1.6 trans-Pacific airliner carrying what is today the business class section of a conventional aircraft.
Aerion plans to fly the AS2 in 2023 and aims to complete the certification in 2025. To-date, the customers have been Flexjet, who have ordered 20 AS2 business jets.