Supersonic Aerospace International, a company founded by the son of the founder of the Gulfstream aircraft company, has entered into an agreement with Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works division (makers of the Stealth bomber, the Stealth fighter, the Stealth-oh-you-get-the-idea) to produce a commercially viable supersonic aircraft for private citizens. The projected development cost of the project, according to Wired magazine, is around $2.6 billion. Aerion, a competing aerospace company, is developing their own private supersonic aircraft, and it is believed they’ll drop another cool $2 billion on their plane. Both planes are expected to reach market within the next six or seven years. Both companies believe they can avoid the commercial pitfalls that doomed the Concorde by targeting their aircraft exclusively towards the richest of the rich. You know, as opposed to the rabble they let on the Concorde.
Who the hell are they kidding? I have no doubt that the wealthiest of the wealthy will want to own and fly on such an aircraft, but in ten, maybe twelve years do they really think these birds will be viable even to their target audience?
Let me put it like this: jet fuel isn’t going to get any cheaper. Heck, fuel of any kind isn’t going to get any cheaper. Even oil company executives are pretty much convinced we are at or near peak production. Technology might make it easier to squeeze a few extra drops out of the planet, but it won’t teleport those drops to countries that don’t have an unfortunate tendency to blow up. And, we’re assuming that the market for and laws governing commercial and civil aviation will remain the same for the foreseeable future. They most likely won’t, given that it’s pretty much decided that human activity is causing global warming and political pressure to radically alter the way we live is only going to grow more intense. All of this promises to have a huge impact on the aviation industry. Maybe most billionaires won’t give a damn, but I’m fairly certain that a fair number of them will consider it bad P.R. to flit about at supersonic speeds while the rest of us fight over the scraps of the airline industry. Couldn’t they have found something else to drop $4 billion on?
I’m naïve. I admit it. I am also easily awed by people who are smarter than me. (Why, yes, I do spend a lot of time awed. Ha ha.) But it’s true. I want to carry these folks’ books home from school every day for, like, ever. That’s why I can’t figure out how pretty damn smart guys – and if you can design a supersonic aircraft, you are a smart guy – don’t see all these potential pitfalls. Aircraft designers as a matter of course must be able to see how systems fit together and influence each other; that’s a skill that should translate into how they see the world and events that shape it. Maybe they’re in the denialist camp on global warming, but seeing as those folks are pretty much down to blaming the sun, I doubt it.
Or maybe I’m just wishing they would throw that $4 billion and all that brainpower at a way to restructure air travel, one of the great boons of human history, technology that has shrunk the world like no other, into something economically and environmentally viable, rather than at developing toys for people who already have too many.
I told you I was naïve.