Failing to break the sound barrier: Why our planes are stuck in the 50s.

With summer break just around the corner, soon many of us will pay handsomely for the privilege of going through endless security lines to sit in a tiny pressurized tube hurtling across the Earth at 500 miles an hour, hoping our bags make the journey with us. And within a matter of hours, we’ll arrive in a completely different part of the country or the world.

Modern jet travel is still pretty awesome if you stop and think about it. We take for granted that epically long trips which used to take weeks or months can be completed in under a day’s time. (Although sometimes it feels like we spend weeks just waiting around the airport when flight delays happen). Commercial jet travel first roared onto the scene in the late 1950s. In 1957 the Boeing 707, one of the fastest passenger jets in the world at the time, was released. The 707 could travel at speeds of up to 560 miles per hour (mph). However, the 707 would be no match for today’s Boeing 737, which travels at…563 mph.

Yes, you read correctly. Today’s passenger jets aren’t much faster than the 1950s models (although Wi-Fi and satellite television weren’t available back on planes back then). That’s weird, right? So why haven’t planes gotten faster, like, say, computers? Wouldn’t faster plane travel give us more time to enjoy our summer vacations?
The truth is, faster hasn’t always proved to be better when it comes to commercial jets, at least not for the aircraft manufacturers and airlines. There are many reasons for this. Let’s take a look at what happened with the Concorde, the supersonic passenger plane that was supposed to be a huge leap forward for commercial air travel.

In early 1976, what was promised to be the jet of the future was released: the BAC Concorde. Produced jointly by Britain and France, the Concorde was a supersonic passenger jet, meaning it could travel faster than the speed of sound. In fact, the Concorde traveled at 1,354 mph — more than twice the speed of sound.

The sales pitch was simple. Three and half hours from New York City to London, rather than the usual eight. Many national airlines, wanting to cash in on the “Jet of the Future,” purchased Concordes, despite the high unit cost of $91 million in today’s dollars. So why were all Concordes retired from service by 2003, with no newer supersonic jets to replace them?

When flying at multiple times the speed of regular jetliners, multiple problems arise: heat, fuel, safety, cost, and noise, and. Let’s take a look at heat first.

Friction with the air causes heat. On the Concorde, this heat would often result in discomfort for passengers in window seats, where the temperatures would exceed 90 degrees. No one wants to spend an entire flight sweating, even if it’s just a short 3.5 hour hop across the Atlantic.

Next, the problem with using such powerful engines (about 152,000 pounds of thrust from 4 engines) resulted in using a highly inefficient 7 gallons of fuel per mile of travel. This limited the Concorde to about 4,500 miles of useable range in order to meet requirements for emergency fuel and such. Such fuel inefficiency resulted in high operating costs, which in turn caused ticket prices to increase significantly. An average ticket for a New York-London flight on the Concorde cost about $11,000 in today’s dollars. The same flight today, on a regular subsonic jet, costs about $1,500.

Not only was the cost harmful to the customer’s wallets, but the plane was inherently dangerous as well. The Concorde operated at about 60,000 feet. That’s normal and fine for military pilots, who have the training and equipment such as g-suits to survive such harsh environments. However, if mishap were to occur on a Concorde flight and the cabin depressurized, no one would survive in those high altitudes.

Today, major aerospace companies are making the choice to favor cheaper cost over speed, investing in traditional engines rather than turbojets. If manufacturers continue down this route, we move farther away from the economic model of supersonic flight. To put it in perspective, the technology used in rival airliners during the 1970s was closer to the type of technology required to exceed the speed of sound than that of modern-day jets. So basically, the future of air travel already happened…back in the 70s.
Lastly, the biggest obstacle to supersonic commercial flight lies in the restrictions in place by the FAA and local communities. The noise from supersonic flights causes problems with the local populous. Breaking the sound barrier creates a deafening sound called a sonic boom. When military jets take off, their sound approaches near-gunshot levels. Understandably, the sonic noise upset people living near and under the Concorde’s flight path. As of today, supersonic flight is restricted to flight over international waters, making it impossible for most routes to go supersonic.

As soon as air travel became an option for the masses, innovation became commonplace. Airlines changed from propellers to jets, moving from World War II surplus aircraft to Boeing 707s and Douglas DC-8s. It’s kind of sad to think that with the failure of the Concorde, air travel can’t really progress in terms of speed. We can only hope though…perhaps supersonic travel will return by the 2070s. In the meantime, enjoy your complimentary snacks and beverages.

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