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Analysis

Boeing backs Aerion and dreams of supersonic flights

Boeing, via Boeing NeXt, has just announced a partnership with Aerion, one of the corporations that dreams of resuscitating the civil supersonic aviation market. A look at corporations positioned on this niche. Who will be the first – well, the second, RIP Concorde – to cross the sound barrier?

Aerion and Boeing, SST on the horizon

                This race began on May 31, 2003, the moment the last Concorde set down at Roissy Charles de Gaulle, putting an end to the first chapter in the history of the civil supersonic aviation market: who will write the second chapter? How? Using what economic model and what profitability?

Aerion is one of the first to take up the challenge. The company was created in 2003, just when the Concorde was taken out of service. First of all, it is a group of technical specialists working on all that is involved in "supersonic": on fluid management, on aerodynamics, on the famous "sound wall" and the "boom" that it entails... Very quickly, the company reveals its new ambitions: relaying the Concorde. But this time, however, it is not about creating a new supersonic airliner; the company is positioning itself in the private jet market. Become a manufacturer or sell patents, then sell them to the happy few able to afford them: a way to overcome the problem of flight profitability, the cost of kerosene..... In 2007: a first design was presented; with a goal of a price below $100 million, a first test flight in the mid-2010s and marketing in 2020. Obviously, the project is falling behind schedule. However, the company successfully tested new alloys and materials with NASA to build its prototype; and announced that all tests were positive. Hope is returning for civilians wanting to break the sound barrier. Especially when the company announces a second model that is more expensive and slightly larger. The timetable? First test flights in 2018, a final model in 2023, certification in 2025 and first sales in 2028. A story of postponed dates and diminished hopes.

And yet the company seems to be moving forward, after tests with NASA, another great name is joining the adventure: Boeing. It is in fact the third manufacturer linked to Aerion, after Airbus and Lockheed abandoned the project, despite following the sonic dreamers' company for years. Boeing has been adopted to try to build the plane from the plans, and maintain the target for the first flight in 2023. The American giant's assistance is multiple: funds, engineering, construction assistance... The details of the operation have not been revealed: neither in price nor in form. The whole is managed by Boeing NeXt, the part of the parent company that manages R&D for all areas related to "new technologies", whether in "Urban Planning", "Block Chain", or "AI" - essentially the home of the future made in Boeing.

As for the aircraft to be built: it will have 12 seats, and will fly at a speed close to mach 1.4. That is about a thousand kilometres per hour, putting New York at 4 hours from London. This is considerably slower than some possible competitors because Aerion wants to avoid the "Boom" when the sound wall passes through, in particular because it is still forbidden to exceed this limit above residential areas. The final goal is, in fact, to flirt with this limit, with variations depending on the location of the aircraft and atmospheric conditions. So it's not even really supersonic flight, but flirting with supersonic flight. Nuance. However, after changing dates, and changing from NASA to Airbus... now Boeing is trying its luck.

 

Flight over the SST incubator            

Who are the other players in this market? With what temporality? The partnership between Boeing and Aerion offers an opportunity to give a brief overview of the players in this market that no longer exists/not yet. In addition to Aerion and Boeing, that is.

                As for the other giant, Airbus, a project is underway: ZEHST, for Zero Emission Hyper Sonic Transport. A 100-seat airliner, capable of travelling at a hypersonic speed (Mach 4), for zero greenhouse gas emissions during the journey. That would put London one hour from New York, Tokyo two hours from Paris. However, there has been no news since 2015, after a first announcement at the Paris Air Show in 2011. The manufacturer had announced a date for commercial flights: 2050. So not right away.

                Then there is the Spike Aerospace project. A windowless supersonic aircraft, highly technical in spirit, with internal walls covered with screens, to show the exterior and to navigate through various applications and multimedia content. Here again, 2023 is being put forward for the first flights. At least that's what the CEO repeated again in 2018. Meanwhile 2018 had already been announced in the past as a possible date for a first test flight.

                Then there is HyperMach, and its old prototype called SonicStar. Here, the observation is simple: no news since 2016. The last news suggested the first flight was scheduled for 2025. Shortly after the other competitors.

                Finally, the other major company on this supersonic jet market, whether it will be an airline or private: Boom. The Colorado-based company has seen Virgin's head, Richard Branson and Japan Airlines, among others, enter the company's capital. In terms of fundraising, Boom is at the top of the list: $100 million raised from Silicon Valley funds (such as Y Combinator, Emmerson Collective...). The company assures that it will be able to make a first test flight in 2019, on an aircraft of smaller calibre than the final objective but still supersonic. A first test on a final model is expected in 2025.

                Obviously, in addition to this "supersonic" market, there are other dreams and fantasies. In 2018 Virgin Galactic successfully launched its first prototype spacecraft. Not to mention SpaceX, whose inescapable creator, Elon Musk, unveiled a rocket travel project in 2017. This would put London half an hour from New York, far less than the 3 hours promised by a supersonic jet, or the current 7 hours. With one difference, today, the 7 hours are a sure thing.

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