Mercatus Center decides that FAA is blocking SST developmentREALLY?

supersonic travel development
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Supersonic Travel Development

supersonic travel developmentAndrea Castillo, the program manager for the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, wrote a scholarly journal which concludes:

“If not for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) meddling in supersonic flight innovation, we could zip around the world in a fraction of the time….

You can thank the FAA for this continued mediocrity in air travel. In 1973, amid ample developments in supersonic flight, the FAA bizarrely decided to prohibit supersonic travel (SST) over the US. Why? When an aircraft travels faster than the speed of sound, it generates shock waves that become compressed into one super-loud “sonic boom.” The FAA and other civilian activists were concerned about the potential damage that SST flights could do to the environment or to civil infrastructure…

Unfortunately, evidence-based policy-making did not guide the FAA’s supersonic ban. Knee-jerk techno-skepticism did

When the development of the Concorde was announced in 1962, a group of anti-SST scientists and concerned laypeople rallied to stop the march of progress in aviation. A Swedish aeronautics engineer named Bo Lundberg provided much of the academic antagonism, publishing articles through his aviation research institute suggesting that the public would reject the nuisance of SST sonic booms.”

[emphasis added]

Mercatus is a Latin word for “market”; this interesting exposition might qualify for another Latin word commentum. It contains lots of interesting details, well researched, but there are breaks between the story and the causal sequence between FAA action and SST’s current status.

Here are a few salient points to be considered:

→  The policy decision to only allow the SST for 16 months of test flights was made by Secretary of Transportation Coleman in a NEPA review in a four volume record of decision. The FAA only implemented that decision in its amendment to 14 CFR Part 36, several years later after those tests.

  • The decision was challenged in the case Environmental Defense Fund v. DOT, before the DC Circuit and the judges found that the 71 page Record of Decision supported the Secretary’s action.

→  The author asserts that “most airlines cruise at altitudes well below the speed of sound, with a standard Boeing 747-B clocking in at a ho-hum 570 mph cruising speed.” In fact:

→  The development of airframe and powerplant technology is not the real delimiter for the current air transportation system.

  • The consumer demand for speed is not large enough in passengers to pay for that extra fuel.
  • Assuming that passengers would be willing to pay an Acela-like premium for shorter published flight times, variables in the ATC system could negate the speed; time spent taxiing at either end of the segment and/or slow speeds imposed by air traffic control due to volume could erase the reduction of the wheels up/wheels down period forecast by a faster aircraft.
  • If Mercatus could convince the knee-jerk environ- mentalists to stop opposing new runways and the implementation of NextGen procedures, the reliability would raise to a level which would support the greater speeds.

→  The article sloughs off the true problem with the SST with a short line “Both the Concorde (1,350 mph) and the Soviet Union’s Tupolev Tu-44 (1,200 mph) faced early retirements for financial reasons.” The analysts who examined these supersonic planes’ financial performances were a lot more caustic. Here are a few experts’ determinations that the market, not governmental meddling, caused this class of plane’s demise:

  • Philippe Camus, co-chief-executive of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, the main parent company of Airbus, which maintains the Concorde planes. “There’s no evidence there’s any market for that.” (NYT article)
  • “On the cost side, the Concorde planes, which were built in the 1970’s, consumed huge amounts of fuel and were becoming expensive to maintain. Airbus recently told British Airways and Air France that the fleets would require some major overhauls within the next two years. For British Airways, the estimated bill was up to £40 million, or nearly $70 million, said David Noyes, British Airways’ executive vice president for sales and marketing in North America.” (NYT article)
  • “Part of the reason the airlines could claim some profitability on the Concorde was because they did not have to incur capital costs on the planes, said Daniel Solon, who works in Barcelona for Avmark International, an aviation consulting firm. The governments of England and France underwrote the costs of building the 14 Concordes, which were then turned over to the two national airlines.” (NYT article)
  • “The noise levels of the jets hampered how much money British Airways and Air France could make off of them. The jets’ sonic booms prevented them from being flown to any great degree over populated areas. Lockheed Martin and the United States government are looking at bringing down supersonic noise on military aircraft, and if that project were ever to come to fruition, then its application to the commercial world could lead to much greater uses for jetliners flying at the speed of the Concorde, industry experts say.” (NYT article)
  • ’The airplane’s potential network was limited by noise,’ said Robert W. Mann, an industry consultant based in Port Washington, N.Y. ‘When it was first used in this country on demonstration runs, the first words out of people’s mouths was, `God, that’s a loud airplane!'” (NYT article)
  • “In terms of fuel use per passenger carried, one gallon of fuel on Concorde will take one passenger 16.7 miles, but on a 747 one passenger can travel 80 miles. The 747 is 4.8 times more fuel efficient than a Concorde.” (Travel Insider)
  • A Concorde is more costly to maintain than a 747. One rule of thumb is that Concorde’s total operating cost is three times its fuel cost. I don’t know what the comparable rule of thumb is for a 747, but let’s assume that a 747’s total operating cost is twice its fuel cost. This means that the total cost per passenger on a roundtrip across the Atlantic is now $1422 for Concorde and $198 for a 747. It is costing the airline an extra $1224 to fly a person on Concorde instead of on a 747.” (Travel Insider)
  • “In May 1976, Professor David Henderson, newly appointed professor of political economy at University College, London, argued that the government’s figure of £1.46 billion shared between Britain and France was a drastic underestimate. It had been reached by adding the yearly expenditure on the project at the current prices. if these were adjusted to 1975 prices, and interest charges of 10 percent added, then the cost of Concorde was not £1.46 billion but £4.26 billion ($6.82 billion at the present exchange rate of $1.60).” (The Atlantic)

→  The author asserts “ [f]ortunately, as technologists and even policymakers begin to see airspace as another platform for innovation, the appetite for “permissionless [sic] innovation” policy-reforms is growing. The FAA could be a champion for the next great American industry as soon as it decides to change.” The example of a “Denver-based start-up Boom Technology is developing aircraft to travel at speeds up to 1,451 mph.” The list of innovators who understand how regulations can change upon proof is longer than intimated:

  • Spike Aviation promises to build the airplane of the future. Its creativity is demonstrated in the above picture—no windows and instead thin television screens displaying the view generated by a number of small aperture cameras. The design is exciting from a visual perspective and even more explosive from an engineering standpoint (portals add weight, pose a structural challenge and add drag). (JDA Journal)


supersonic travel development

The FAA has flaws and deserves criticism in those cases. Mercatus has decided that the FAA has been impairing the development of drones (over 30 articles faulting the FAA); perhaps having convicted the safety agency in that context, it was decided to convince the public that the FAA is precluding the development of SSTs. Nice article, superficially convincing, but deficient after critical analysis. Libertarian views do not give license to taking liberty interpreting the facts.


[i] Unfortunately, evidence-based policy-making did not guide the FAA's supersonic ban. Knee-jerk techno-skepticism did.

ARTICLE: How the FAA Killed Supersonic Flight—And How It Can Revive It
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