Why Hypersonic Flights To Europe Might Not Work

Why Hypersonic Flights To Europe Might Not Work

I’ve flown Sydney-London so often I pretend the 24-hour flight time doesn’t matter, but it does. European researchers are working on hypersonic jet projects that could potentially cut that time down to four hours, but even if the scientific challenges get solved, there might not be a viable business in speedier flights.

Picture by Graham Collins

BBC News reports that the European Space Agency is working on a hypersonic jet project that could deliver much faster flight times, though it doesn’t expect that to become a reality until 2040 at the earliest. But even then, there’s an interesting commercial challenge:

Aviation expert John Strickland questions whether high-speed flying will ever make sense for the airline industry – which traditionally subsidises economy seats with the profits made in business class. “If you took those people off those subsonic flights then you throw into question the economics of those flights,” he says. “Somewhere along the line you would end up either cancelling the subsonic flights or struggling to get the right price levels even to make a hypersonic service financially viable.”

I like the idea of speedy travel, but I’m also fundamentally a cheapskate, and I suspect I’d be in the “I’ll pay less for the day-long version” category. How about you?

Could hypersonic flight become a reality? [BBC News]


  • It’s not just cost either.. think about the logistics of it. At the moment all the scheduling is set up to cater for a flight that takes 24 hours (or whatever it actually is) and then you add flights that can get there in 4..? Would have to do a lot of rescheduling and reworking of the way things are done in that regard too.

  • I think you need to factor in what your time is actually worth. Say you’re on holiday – how much is two extra days (there and back flights) really worth? I’d pay a grand for that, easily. Don’t forget about the amount of sleep you’d miss on a 24hr flight.

  • I wonder if the airline can get cost advantages by using less planes though?

    18 hours to get from Perth to London

    Let’s say the plane carries 500 passengers

    You could ferry 2000 passengers (4 x 500) in same time you can ferry 500 with a cheap plane (18 hour flight).

    So you could go for a (relatively) low margin, high turnover business model instead of a (relatively) high margin, low turnover business model.

    Not really educated on the economics of these airline companies – they run pretty close to the wire with their margins, so might not help the fast flights be profitable by increasing turnover.

    • that is the possibility, but you aren’t going to suddenly increase your customer base by 400% just by having a faster plane. so whilst you could ferry more poeple, its just not going to work if you still only have the same 500 people who want to leave on that day.

  • It’s not actually about economics, its about psychology. BA and Air France apparently made a loss on the Concorde, but the prestige gained, brand recognition etc actually helped their subsonic business. In economic terms supersonic or in the future hypersonic flights are ‘loss leaders’ for airlines.

    • While I agree with your point, economics eventually won out in your example. Yes, Concorde was persisted with despite financial burden for quite a period; however if Concorde was more valuable to their business as a whole than it was expensive – then it would still be in the sky today.

      • You’re forgetting that Concorde crashed and killed hundreds of paying passengers and the subsequent investigation found a serious design flaw present in all operational jets….
        That was the true nail in Concorde’s coffin!

        • I stand corrected by the Wikipedia article on the crash, no design flaw was found according to that article…
          It pins the blame on the sharp drop in air traffic following 9/11, just as Concorde was about to re-launch.

          • The problem with the Concorde crash was that Concorde was already a high profile aircraft, which along with its uniqueness as the world’s only civilian supersonic aircraft meant that it attracted immense scrutiny following the crash. I believe the official cause of that incident was finally put down to debris on the runway.

            Unfortunately though, the crash, and its related media coverage did very little to help with attempts to increase passenger numbers to ensure a profitable (or at least less unprofitable) service.

          • All true, economics yes, but all economics is psychology in the end. Apple does it, so does Rolex. And the reason it couldn’t get back in the air was about fear of flying after 9/11 which reduced the economic variables. Again, psychology.

            But Hypersonic is going to happen regardless, for the same reason Toyota and others are in Formula One racing, kudos and technology translation to higher profit business lines. Reptile brain again.

  • I’m going to sum it up into as brief and blunt a statement as I can:

    If Concorde – a slower machine that already existed and required no further financial investment for R&D or manufacture – couldn’t be run to a profit on one of the busiest international air routes in the world, what makes anyone think that hypersonic is more achievable?

    • Concorde drank fuel and fares were outrageous.. (I just Googled it..6,800 pounds back when the pound was 3:1, current day First Class London-New York is only 3000 pounds!)
      If they can design a plane that drinks less fuel such that fares might be somewhat comparable to a regular flight business class fare, they might be onto something.
      People will happily pay a premium to fly in such a short time, just not a ridiculous premium.

      • Yes Concorde was an enormous consumer of aviation fuel; that is hardly surprising.

        Without going to go into the mathematics of it, the cost of running a flight is influenced by a few factors:

        Fuel – cost of purchase, and efficiency in use
        Net tare weight – the weight of the aircraft and its payload
        Drag – the aerodynamic efficiency, speed and size of the aircraft and how thick the air is
        Gravitational resistance – Affected to some extent by the altitude the aircraft cruises at
        Running costs, administration and profit – the basis of all services.

        As speed goes up, both fuel efficiency decreases and drag increases exponentially; which means efficiencies need to be found across the board to offset these. It’s not as simple as simply saying “use more modern more efficient jets”, there’s just hasn’t been anywhere near THAT level of refinement in the technology, nor is there a suitable replacement technology yet.

        “If they can design a plane that drinks less fuel such that fares might be somewhat comparable to a regular flight business class fare, they might be onto something.”

        I couldn’t agree enough with that comment, but sadly I think we’re a long way from that.

        • Err, the Concorde was/is the most efficient supersonic aeroplane ever designed. Concorde consumed the greatest amount of fuel while in slow speed flight – after take off and climbing up to cruise alt. It’s engines were actually more efficient at supersonic flight than at subsonic flight. Drag reaches a peak at transonic speeds prior to Mach 1, hence why all airlines fly at >0.88Mach. Exceeding around Mach 1.2, total drag decreases.

          Geared turbofans, it’s the future.

          Gravitational resistance? Haha?

  • That amount of reduced Time in the air should also mean much less fuel used, less food to serve. No need for two staff shifts per flight.

    If the flight is only 4 hours, staff could do two flights and return home and not require a hotel to stay at.

    There are lots of other savings that can be made also.

  • How many shake ups do you think the airline industry is going to go through between now and 2040? It’s a bit hard to predict economies in the industry 30 years from now based on today’s economies.

    Who knows what advances in fuel efficiency the next oil price spike will deliver? Or the rising cost of 3rd world labour. Maybe hypersonic flights 30 years from now will be more fuel efficient (via less air time) and infinitely less labour intensive than today. Or maybe environmental economics will force us to balloon around the planet instead.

  • Here’s a thought. Presuming these flights appeal primarily to business people (given likely price points), and assuming that they are technically viable in the next 10 years, I believe they are never going to happen if only because the improved technology available to business via virtual 3D tele-presence over the same period will suck the vast majority of demand out of the business market for such flights. This leaves the tourist market as the main playing ground. In light of this, airlines would be wiser to invest in planes that can carry more people, at around the same speeds, but with much greater fuel efficiency and without the need for stopovers on long hauls.

  • The pace of development of the technology for hypersonic flight has rapidly increased in the last few years. Hypersonic flight will happen regardless, and it will happen well before 2040.
    It should have happened years ago, but there has been too much focus on war.
    The wealthy and business everywhere would jump at the chance of taking only 4 hours to travel half-way round the world instead of 24.

  • I work in the Finance industry and have done my fair share of aircraft seat time…for work and pleasure. Although I agree with Mike about tele-presence technology etc. a reasonable chunk of “important meetings” will probably continue to be “face to face” or “in person” as when we sit at these meetings we are not just “talking shop” but employing and using a raft of other practices which can only be made/done in person. e.g. reading expressions, body movement, tone of voice, eye movement etc. etc. When you are talking contracts worth large $$ this is how its done. Although I am sure 3d stuff will be there in the future – it probably won’t let me observe the shoes and foot twitches the individual is is doing under their seat…which tells me oh so much about their personality and how to interact with them most effectively for the purpose of a business meeting. Mind you – in Australia there probably isn’t enough of us travelling for this purpose every day to warrant a full plane…but in the Northern Hemisphere that isn’t the case….especially Europe….many European cultures will only do business in person – regardless of their techno savvy…..its just he way things are done in some parts of the world outside of ours.

    So, I “hope” supersonic/hypersonic flights do become economically viable in the not too distant future (before I retire anyway) as when I do have to attend one of these meetings I would definately use it so I could be home that night to be with my Family again instead of it being a 72hour turn around and I feel like crap for another 2 or 3 days afterwards. Money would be no issue for the fare….it can just go on the bill for the customer………..consumers (e.g. all of us) always pay in the end regardless anyway (Business…sells consumers products…Govt…charges citizens taxes).

  • The technology is a challenge, flight time indicates airspeed in the Mach 4 – 6 range, which means essentially suborbital flight (the plane will get too hot/demand too much energy at lower altitudes). Currently, ramjets or rockets are potential engines. Ramjets don’t work till the plane is going fairly fast (i.e. takeoff requires different propulsion), and still need to fly in the atmosphere. Rockets are very polluting – liquid fuel gives off hydrochloric acid as exhaust. Something that they cope with for a few shuttle launches a year, but not OK for dozens of flights daily from Sydney airport. This courtesy of a NASA engineer working on hypersonic transports – he sat next to me on a flight to Denver a few years back.

  • I’d say it’s more likely that the future is going to be built around alternative energy sources as fuels and drastically increased aerodynamic efficiency as far as the design of the aircraft is concerned.

    I remember reading an article a while back saying the Euopean union did a study on posibly having hydrogen as a fuel source instead of standrad jet fuel, but it evolved that it wasnt cost efficient as even though liquid hydrogen has about one third the weight of jet fuel for the same amount of energy.. it has about 4 times the volume, making for a much larger fuselage and increased drag/windresistance in the air. I’m no physicist.. but thats about what i remember.

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