As the CEO of Ovation Travel Group, people often ask me what my best vacation was, and I never have to think twice about the answer: it was my 15th wedding anniversary in 1999. My wife and I went to France, starting out in Paris at the legendary Ritz in a fabulous suite overlooking the Place Vendôme, and then taking the TGV, the French high-speed train, to Provence for a week-long cycling trip. (Hey, I own a travel company so the perks should be great, right?!).
But the most mind-blowing part of the trip happened before it technically began; to get to Paris, we flew on Air France Concorde. To me, it was amazing that you could get from New York to Paris in a little over 3 hours. You would be sitting there eating caviar and sipping champagne and then you could actually hear that little 'pop' when you broke the sound barrier. Outstanding service aside, it was simply a technological marvel. And we had arrived in Paris in about the same time it took to fly from New York to Miami!
I've always felt we took a giant step backward when we discontinued supersonic travel and hoped it could be brought back. My flight was over two decades ago, and I think it's a shame that while so many other areas of technology have advanced tremendously--from everyday computers and cell phones to integrated artificial intelligence to robotics--we are just sitting on this technology.
The Concorde wasn't just for once-in-a-lifetime vacations. Because of the amount of "high touch" business travel for which my company is known, Ovation was among the largest sellers of Concorde tickets before they stopped flying in 2003. From an economic perspective alone, it's a tragedy that it now takes over twice as long to travel the same distance as it used to in order to conduct business.
But while there were real issues that led to its discontinuation, it turns out I'm not the only one who thinks supersonic travel should be brought back. Moreover, some of those people have thought of ways to alleviate the problems that led to the Concorde's retirement. Here is an overview of supersonic travel--both the past and the plans that are being made for the future:
What made the Concorde special? The Concorde was a revelation when it first came on the scene in 1969. There were 20 aircraft built, with 14 in use by Air France and 7 by British Airways. It was built to fly at Mach 2 and could reach 60,000 feet. That's over 11 miles; at that height, you could technically see the curvature of the Earth. But the most exciting aspect of the Concorde was its ability to cross the Atlantic Ocean in roughly 3.5 hours. This made it a boon for vacationers, business travelers and even musicians--Phil Collins famously flew on the Concorde on July 13, 1985, enabling him to perform in both London and Philadelphia on the same day for the Live Aid charity event concert.
Why was the Concorde discontinued? There were a number of factors that led to up to it. To begin with breaking the sound barrier is very loud and can be disruptive to people on the ground below. Moreover, the raw fuel that was used was very costly and contributed to air pollution. Plus, the tickets were very expensive (roughly $15,000 in today's currency), making it inaccessible for many people. Then, in July of 2000, the Concorde's only disaster happened when runway debris caused a tire to burst upon takeoff at Charles de Gaulle Airport, which in turn punctured the fuel tank, caused a fire and a subsequent crash into a hotel. The crash ultimately killed over 100 people, including passengers, crew members and four people on the ground. The next year 9/11 happened, and with heightened overall concerns over aviation safety in general, the Concorde sadly made its last flight in 2003.
The Good News: What is the Lee-Gardner Amendment? Since 2003, industry leaders and innovators have been working to address the above issues, and their efforts have been paying off. In July 2017, the Senate Commerce Committee agreed to the Lee-Gardner Amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill. It noted, in part, that "Next-generation supersonic technology being developed [...] could fundamentally change the way we travel through the air by reducing travel times significantly. Companies pursuing supersonic technology need long-term regulatory certainty from the FAA that will allow their designs to move forward so long as they are safe and meet existing standards for noise." Among other things, the amendment makes it legal to fly supersonic aircrafts over U.S. land; requires smaller engines, meaning less fuel burned and less pollution; lessens the need to refuel during long flights and reduces the noise. In short, it paves the way for companies like the two major supersonic players below.
Boom. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson teamed up with Boom Technology to develop the new and improved "Boom XB-1" or "Baby Boom." The supersonic aircraft will reach speed of Mach 2.2 (1,687 mph) and has a maximum capacity of 55 seats. It's described as "having one seat on either side of the aisle, each with ample room, a personal video screen, a work table, overhead storage and a large window to enjoy the view from 60,000 feet." It also has an anticipated delivery date of 2023 and anticipated ticket price set around $5,000. Boom CEO Blake Scholl, who is also a pilot, has stated, "Ultimately I want people to be able to get anywhere in the world in five hours for $100. To get there you have to improve fuel efficiency, but step-by-step supersonic air travel will become available for everyone."
SpaceX. In September 2017, Elon Musk's company, SpaceX, announced their intent to design the "BFR," or Big Falcon Rocket: an aircraft that will be able to transport passengers to Mars as easily as from New York to Los Angeles (and will be capable of both). Fueled by the power of reusable technology, the BFR would be able to reach a speed of 17,000 mph by avoiding the "friction" aircrafts are subjected to in earth's atmosphere. With the absence of air, weather and turbulence, Musk plans to give travelers "access to anywhere in the world in an hour or less." With transportation this astronomical (no pun intended), the most common concern across the Internet appears to be what this could possibly cost. Musk addressed this matter via his Instagram account, stating, "Cost per seat should be about the same as full fare economy in an aircraft."
As the globalization of business increases, I believe we need increasingly global ways of remaining connected. We used to be able to get from New York to London or Paris in 3 hours, and the technology exists to facilitate travel to Tokyo in 5 hours. Ultimately, I agree with Blake Scholl, who said that "Speed isn't about going really fast. It's about closeness. It's about making far-away places feel like they're right around the corner. If we can fly twice as fast, the world becomes twice as small, turning far-off lands into familiar neighbors."
To that I say - it's about time.