What Happened to the Commercial Airplane – Antique?

Written by: Mary Shull

Ever flown in a commercial airplane? If you’re one of the 637 million (U.S. statistics for 2011) who fly each year, your answer would be “yes.” People do love to fly. I mean, come on, what other choice do we have? It’s the fastest mode of transportation available to us. It’s said that flying in an airplane is even safer than driving your car! Statistics show that 1 out of 6,800 drivers die in an auto accident each year, while only 1 out 1.6 million die of an airplane crash.

But let’s take a look at the airplane. While it may be safer than a car, what has been done to modernize the speed of a commercial airplane in the last 20 years? The first powered flight by the Wright Brothers was in 1903. We had the first commercial jet airliner reach production in 1949. Then in 1969, the Boeing 747 was produced and has remained one of the most successful aircraft produced. However, its normal cruising speed is only 550 miles per hour. Sadly, one of the fastest commercial airplanes, the Concorde, was retired in 2003. It was able to fly at Mach 2.02 or 1,330 miles per hour.

Concorde Airplane

The Concorde airplane - retired in 2003

So, it’s said that we can’t have a commercial airplane go faster than it currently does because we would then create a sonic boom which is what the Concorde produced. But the Concorde produced this over the ocean so as not to disturb the public. So the question I still ask is, “Why have we stagnated? Why hasn’t man been able to develop a breakthrough in the last 60 years in airplane design or its effect on the speed of sound?” Am I the only one that finds this amazing? I feel like we are standing still in time. Where are our scientific breakthroughs? Sixty years is a long time!

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has said that business jets may lead the way in 2015 with passenger air travel at speeds faster than sound. And in 2025, a small supersonic airliner may follow that could transport around 75 people. However, a larger one could follow in another five years.

So, let’s see…in another 18 years we may see a commercial airplane that could get us to our destination faster? I guess I just expect more from humankind. I would like to see humans reach their full potential. We have such a long way to go and it seems we have taken many steps backward in the last 11 years. Let’s go forward. Let’s stretch ourselves. Let’s reach for the stars again! We may discover many great things along the way!

Aerion Preparing Supersonic Business Jet for Service in 2015

Aerion's supersonic business jet may be ready for service by 2015; however, it will most likely be available only for an exclusive group of individuals.

Despite the demise of Concorde seven years ago the improbability of its return to service, it is expected that commercial supersonic air travel may return as soon as 2015 with the introduction of the highly anticipated supersonic business jet from Aerion Corporation, according to EDI Weekly.

Aerion’s supersonic business jet will not have the same capacity for the number of passengers as did Concorde; however, it will feature significant technological advancements which include a new wing design and a reduced sonic boom effect.  The wing design differs from that of the Concorde in that it is designed for what is called a “natural laminar flow” for a reduction in aerodynamic drag of as much as 20 percent (EDI Weekly).  The reduction in sonic boom effect is a no less significant development due to tight governmental restrictions on aircraft sonic boom noise.  The Aerion supersonic business jet will reportedly have a capability of reaching up to 1.1 times the speed of sound without creating sonic boom.

Although it is likely that the Aerion supersonic business jet will be available for service in the foreseeable future, it is far less likely that supersonic travel will become available to the mainstream public within a similar timeframe.  The Aerion supersonic business jet is designed—as the name would imply—as a small business jet, having a seating capacity of only 12.  Being as such, it can be expected that when the Aerion supersonic business jet enters service, it will be available primarily as a corporate jet for an exclusive group of individuals.

Will Concorde Return to Flight Again?

Once regarded as the next promising step in the technological innovation of air travel, Concorde met an early demise due to fallout from the sole fatal crash in its 27 years of service, as well as deteriorating economic conditions.

On November 26, 2003, the BAC Concorde—once believed to be a promising key to the future of commercial air travel—made its final flight after 27 years in commercial service.  Concorde was the second supersonic aircraft ever employed in commercial service.  Concorde remained in service for far longer than its earlier introduced Soviet built counterpart—the Tupolev TU-144—and was until late July of 2000 considered to be the safest due to its nearly unscathed safety track record up to that point.

Until July 25, 2000, the primary Achilles heel of the Concorde fleet was the cost of the development of each aircraft, which ultimately limited the number Concorde commercial aircraft to 14 of only 20 in the total fleet.  The crash of Air France Flight 4590—despite being partly caused by damage from a small part of another aircraft which had fallen on the runway prior to Concorde’s takeoff—was the first of a series of evens which contributed to the retirement of Concorde from service.  Although Concorde managed to return to service more than one year following the first fatal crash in its history in service, the slump in the air travel industry that followed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks ultimately brought about an end to Concorde’s 27 years in service.

Since the retirement of Concorde, speculation and rumors have remained active regarding the possibility of a return of Concorde to commercial service.  Among other reasons cited for justification is that the Concorde’s only fatal crash would not have been possible in the manner in which it occurred without the leaving of a titanium strip on the runway by a DC-10 taking off just before Concorde—which led to the accident when a fragment of Concorde’s tire blown out by the titanium fragment struck the wing just below the fuel tank, causing the fuel tank to rupture and ignite as Concorde was speeding down the runway, already committed to its takeoff.

Although the downfall of Concorde was largely a result of external factors, it remains unlikely that Concorde will see a return to commercial service due to the high cost of development and maintenance of the fleet—and given the severity of current economic conditions, it is quite likely that Concorde will remain grounded for the foreseeable future, if not for good.