Hypersonic flights from New York to London in two hours? Maybe in your lifetime, but only if you’re super-rich.
Boeing’s latest details about a hypersonic Mach 5 transport—which would fly at about 3,800 miles an hour—has generated a lot of opinions in both ink and pixels, but at this point it’s mainly hype. Boeing revealed a rendering of what the hypersonic jet might look like (above). But the main reasons that hypersonic flight technology is probably still on the distant horizon are economic.
How Realistic Are Hypersonic Flights?
- A Mach 5 plane would take a huge amount of energy—for a given size, almost certainly more than the Mach 2 Concorde, and the Concorde took a lot.
- Boeing’s drawings indicate a relatively small airplane, at probably fewer than the Concorde’s 100 passengers.
- Technological challenges mean that even if funded tomorrow, the plane could not actually fly until completion of a 20- to 30-year development program.
Although technically feasible, the Mach 5 plane would have to charge astronomical fares, probably double current full-fare business class or more. I’m sure airlines would find a niche market among the super-rich, but not among the general public, which is bad news for most of us.
This doesn’t mean that supersonic travel remains a pipe dream. For example, although the building of the Concorde jet for supersonic flights involved a huge loss to British and French taxpayers, British Airways made nice profits running it until 2003. It was grounded not because of poor economics, but because Airbus refused to support it on an ongoing basis.
When Hypersonic Flights Could Return
A startup company called Boom is actively developing a small, 50-passenger Mach 2 plane that it claims will have economics better than Concorde’s. You might actually be able to fly on one within 10 years.
And even before that, several outfits are working on supersonic private jets, including some with a low enough sonic boom to operate over land. They will be too expensive for most ordinary travelers, but CEO egos don’t care about cost.
Readers: How much would you pay for hypersonic flights to cut your travel time in half?
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.