June 12, 2016

Drop the Supersonic Aircraft Ban, Watch Business Boom

Eli Dourado

Former Senior Research Fellow

Samuel Hammond

Director of Poverty and Welfare Policy at the Niskanen Center
Summary

A pro-innovation FAA could propel us out of our aviation stagnation overnight. More vague statements and delays will push the development of affordable supersonic transport even further out into the future—a future that seemed just around the corner over half a century ago.

In the 1960s the future of aviation seemed bright. In 1958 Boeing had built its first jetliner, the 707, which cruised at speeds of up to 600 mph. The Concorde came along in 1969, flying at Mach 2—more than 1,500 mph. An age of affordable supersonic flight seemed inevitable, promising U.S. coast-to-coast travel in just 90 minutes.

Today, neither the Concorde nor any other supersonic passenger jet operates. And the 707, still in limited use, remains one of the fastest commercial jets operating in the world. What happened?

Regulation happened. In 1973, shortly after Boeing abandoned the 2707, its Mach 3 government-funded competitor to the British- and French-made Concorde, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a rule banning supersonic transport over the U.S. The move came after growing concerns about the impact of sonic booms over land, including fears that the shock wave would damage buildings, shatter windows and create intolerable noise near airports.

These fears were spread by the Anti-Concorde Project, founded in 1966 by the environmental activist Richard Wiggs. Based on his belief that the Concorde represented a critical front line in the battle between technology and the environment, Wiggs, who died in 2001, made it his mission to prevent the development of supersonic transport. He took out full-page advertisements in the New York Times, testified at congressional hearings, and organized a coalition of academic advisers and residents’ associations near major airports, all to oppose the Concorde.

It wasn’t until after Wiggs’s lobbying succeeded and supersonic transport was banned that research commissioned by the FAA and British Civil Aviation Authority debunked his most-controversial claims. The Concorde was not, in fact, noisier than conventional jets upon takeoff. And while a sonic boom near the ground can in theory cause structural damage, it was not an issue at the Concorde’s 60,000-ft. cruising altitude.

The Concorde was ultimately limited to flights over oceans, and was retired from commercial operation in 2003 due to a combination of high maintenance costs and depressed demand after 9/11. Nonetheless, in the four decades since the FAA ban, supersonic designs have advanced dramatically. If the original ban was an overreaction, today it’s an outright absurdity—and remains in place due more to regulatory inertia and the FAA’s deeply precautionary culture than a sober accounting of costs and benefits.

Among other things, sonic booms are a function of the aircraft’s weight. The Concorde was a beast, weighing up to 412,000 pounds at takeoff. A smaller supersonic jet, taking advantage of modern lightweight materials, would produce a boom that could be a tiny fraction of the Concorde’s.

Today’s aircraft designers are able to run hundreds of computer simulations to discover “quiet supersonic” designs that substantially curtail perceived noise. NASA has been investing in noise-abatement research like this since the mid-1980s, and now private startups are also getting into the game, with at least two U.S. companies, Boom and Aerion, in preproduction of affordable supersonic passenger jets.

So long as the FAA maintains the supersonic ban, these companies have a reduced incentive to implement noise-abatement technologies and gain access to the lucrative coast-to-coast market. But the agency’s official position—offered in a 2008 public statement—is that it will forgo issuing a noise standard for supersonic travel until the “designs become known and the noise impacts of supersonic flight are shown to be acceptable.”

And that’s the catch: Without an official noise standard, how are America’s aviation companies to know what counts as acceptable? No company is going to spend millions of dollars producing a quiet supersonic aircraft behind a veil of ignorance, only to discover later that the FAA does not find it to be quiet enough.

A supersonic noise standard is the only way to create the policy certainty companies need to raise capital and design quiet supersonic aircraft to specification. As with subsonic jets, such a noise standard would be moderate at first and then made more stringent as the market matures and manufacturers climb the noise-abatement learning curve.

A pro-innovation FAA could propel us out of our aviation stagnation overnight. More vague statements and delays will push the development of affordable supersonic transport even further out into the future—a future that seemed just around the corner over half a century ago.