Recent government streamlining could help bring the first major innovations to air travel in decades.
Commercial airliners capable of traveling faster than the speed of sound will return to America’s skies by 2029, United Airlines announced June 3 after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reduced regulations that had stymied progress in the sector. That’s right: Flying could and indeed should actually start getting faster again — if the FAA pursues further deregulation. And the agency has no compelling reason to keep standing in the way.
The major airline company announced it will purchase at least 15 and up to 50 supersonic airliners from the American company Boom Supersonic. The aircraft are said to be capable of sustained flight at Mach 2, equivalent to over 1,400 miles per hour, while holding up to 88 passengers. The company estimates that the supersonic jets could cut commercial-flight times between New York and London from the current six and a half hours to just three and a half. The first flight could occur as soon as 2026. The company claims travelers will pay less for flights per mile than they currently do to ride on business-class subsonic aircraft.
The news follows a major deregulatory change by the FAA announced in November. The aviation authority streamlined the bureaucratic requirements to conduct supersonic flight-testing and cut back noise regulations. The agency expects to decide on further deregulation by 2025. Specifically, the agency is considering expanding the new easing of regulations beyond flight-testing to actual commercial flights. Hopefully, the FAA follows through on this opportunity to make aviation great again. Those interested in further innovation in air travel certainly hope the FAA follows through.
Airliners today actually travel slower than they did in the past due to more intricate scheduling, various regulations, and fuel-efficiency concerns. Inefficiency didn’t doom the Concorde supersonic airliners, as they were profitable relative to conventional subsonic jets of their day, especially toward the end of the aircraft’s operation. However, regulatory noise restrictions limited use of the aircraft almost exclusively to trans-Atlantic routes and made supersonic flights over land effectively illegal.
Supersonic aircraft generate sonic booms continually, so if one were to fly between New York City and Los Angeles, everyone on the ground under the flight path would hear a pain-inducing, roughly 110-decibel noise, equivalent to a nearby chainsaw. Technologies used in new supersonic aircraft could reduce the noise level to roughly that of a car door shutting a dozen paces away. However, despite such technological breakthroughs, every potential flight route announced by Boom Supersonic and United Airlines goes over the ocean and avoids airspace over land. It is clear that outdated government regulations are still suppressing the potential of these aircraft to make travel faster and more cost-effective.
The return of supersonic air travel is significant both because it represents a major advance for the aviation industry that still contends with burdensome overregulation, and because it is an example of how swiftly innovation can proceed when regulatory shackles are lifted. In this case, deregulation regarding flight-testing was enough to kick-start a supersonic breakthrough. But since 1970, the FAA has heavily regulated civilian supersonic aircraft, preventing them from traveling at speeds greater than Mach 1 over the United States because of noise concerns that are largely unwarranted thanks to new noise-reducing technologies. Until the regulatory requirements catch up to current technological realities, supersonic aircraft will remain relegated to flying only over oceans, greatly limiting their potential.
Government overregulation isn’t supersonic air travel’s only obstacle. Certain strands of the environmental movement have long opposed supersonic flight, alleging that supersonic aircraft will burn more fuel per passenger than subsonic planes and thus produce more pollution. Extreme environmentalists attacked the FAA’s new, more-reasonable standards governing supersonic-aircraft testing before they were even released last year.
“The pollution from existing planes is already a major threat to public health that the FAA is ignoring,” said Clare Lakewood, climate legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The current reduction in air traffic [due to the COVID-19 pandemic], and the cleaner air we now breathe, should be reasons for the [government] to adopt measures to protect people and the climate from conventional aircraft, not excuses to pave the way for super-polluting supersonics.”
These concerns are misguided. United Airlines, which pledged to greatly reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions, says the supersonic aircraft will use sustainable aviation fuel and be a “net-zero carbon aircraft.”
Between facing overregulation from bureaucrats and opposition from segments of the environmental movement, supersonic air travel has struggled to gain traction over the past couple of decades. In fact, no commercial airline has operated supersonic aircraft since 2003 when the Concordes, operated by British Airways and Air France, retired.
The FAA’s flight-testing deregulation is a step in the right direction. And this wouldn’t be the first time airline deregulation triggered a renaissance in aviation.
Before 1985, the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board allowed only one or two airlines to serve a given route, let them unilaterally set the price of tickets to actively ban price competition, and essentially operated a government-sponsored airline cartel. The result was that air travel was artificially inflated in price and thus accessible to far fewer Americans. The year before deregulation began, roughly 75 percent of Americans had never flown, compared with just 13 percent in 2020. The exclusive and expensive nature of air travel gave it a glamorous image in the public imagination. To this day the pre-deregulation era is often hailed as a “golden age of flying.” But the reality was far less alluring: smoke-filled cabins, long flight delays, extremely shaky liftoffs, and a much noisier in-flight experience.
United Airlines also played a unique role in the deregulation of the 1970s and 1980s. The airline’s attempts to add new routes had been repeatedly frustrated by the government. So the company fought back and successfully prevented the cronyist airline trade association from blocking deregulation efforts. Regulatory reform soon led to improved price competition and lower airfares. In 1979, the first year of deregulation, the average inflation-adjusted domestic fare was $616, or 1.2 percent of average household income that year. In 2016, the average fare had dropped to $344, merely 0.6 percent of average household income, or roughly half of the previous price.
That lower price tag is even more impressive when one considers that innovations have allowed air travel to become safer over that time period, with fewer fatal hull-loss accidents than in the past, despite far more flights taking place. Flights today are also more comfortable, with smoke-free air, Wi-Fi, and often multiple movie options. And flights today have the potential to be much faster as well. Whether most commercial flights ever become faster-than-sound will depend on further regulatory reform. Here’s hoping the government can get out of the way of the fast planes of the future.