Will We Ever Have Supersonic Planes Like Concorde Again?
What happened to the world's fastest commercial jet—and why there's a long runway ahead for its successors.
Fred Finn is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world's most traveled air passenger. The 83-year-old has accumulated more than 15 million miles, and documented each of his many flights in a log book, accompanied by a receipt. While that number could someday be toppled by another frequent flier, Finn also holds another title that can never be taken away: He’s wracked up a whopping 718 supersonic flights.
Given that no commercial aircraft is currently capable of breaking the sound barrier, Finn will almost certainly retain that title for the rest of his life.
"People began to wonder who this guy was flying Concorde," says Finn, who has a book called Sonic Boom coming out later this year. "He wasn't a film star, he wasn't a rock star, he wasn't the owner of AT&T." Far from it—he used to fly almost biweekly on the world's most famous commercial aircraft through his otherwise unglamorous job in international licensing.
With familiarity came certain perks. While seat 9A became known as "his" seat, Finn was also allowed to fly in the cockpit, since he knew the crew so well. "You can see a circle of about 700 miles," Finn says. "Just above you, it's all very, very dark black-blue."
For 27 years, Concorde shuttled passengers around the world as fast as 1,354 mph—or Mach 2.04—cutting standard commercial flight times in half. But when the iconic aircraft was retired in 2003, there was no successor ready to take its place. That’s still the case more than two decades later. With the exception of fighter pilots and astronauts, humanity has returned to a subsonic world.
It’s the rare case in which technology seems to be moving backward.
Breaking the sound barrier
Miles above the Mojave Desert, a B-29 drops its payload. Released from its belly is not a bomb, but a small plane, shaped just like a bullet and painted a jarring orange that contrasts with the blue sky. Its sole occupant is American test pilot Chuck Yeager, a World War II flying ace who is nursing two broken ribs sustained from falling off his horse a couple of nights back. But what's a little pain when you're about to become the fastest man in the world?
On October 14, 1947, Yeager fired the Bell X-1’s rocket engine, propelling the little orange plane to 700 mph and surpassing the speed of sound for the first time. The experimental aircraft Yeager was flying couldn't stay supersonic for very long, though several nations saw the potential in developing a commercial version that could. Engineers in the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France all clamored to create the first supersonic transport, or SST.
The Soviet Union technically won that race. Its Tu-144 flew supersonic on June 5, 1969, though that plane’s time in the air was brief. An uncomfortable passenger experience—and two major crashes—ended the aircraft's commercial run after just 102 flights, only 55 of which carried passengers. Meanwhile, the Anglo-French Concorde, which debuted only a few months later that year, began its passenger flights on January 21, 1976. British Airways flew between London and Bahrain, while Air France flew between Paris and Rio de Janeiro.
Concorde ended up having much more longevity that its Soviet counterpart. People loved flying on it, and aviation experts still speak reverently of what they liken to "first class on steroids." It was the kind of inflight experience that attracted not only well-off business commuters, but also celebrity clientele.
For his part, Finn says he met Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Muhammad Ali, and Richard Branson on his travels. He remembers Buddy Rich asking to sit next to him once on a flight to London—the famous jazz drummer was evidently nervous. The two chit-chatted, and it turned out that Rich was only headed to the city for one night and was staying far away from the airport. "So I said, 'Well, that's gonna take you 40 minutes to get into London,'" says Finn. "'I've got a suite at the hotel right at the airport, because I'm flying out as well. It's got two bedrooms, so you can have one.'"
Rich accepted the offer—it was apparently too convenient to pass up.
A time-saving—but troubled—mode of transport
There was another thing that was undeniable about Concorde: It saved people a ton of time.
“You could leave London in the morning, fly to New York, attend a meeting, and still sleep in your bed at night,” says Gregory Grage, a former British Airways executive and regular Concorde passenger.
That said, problems plagued Concorde from the start. For one, it created an ear-splitting sonic boom every time it exceeded the speed of sound. That thundering noise was not welcomed by those on the ground, who found it not only disruptive, but also potentially hazardous as it could break glass. Very quickly, Concorde was banned from supersonic flight across land in many countries, limiting it to oceanic routes.
Then there was the cost of fuel, an issue exacerbated by the 1973 oil crisis. "Concorde was a massive fuel guzzler," says Grage. "To put it in perspective, Concorde would generally use 70 tons of fuel to fly 100 passengers from New York to London at supersonic speeds. A 747 also takes 70 tons of fuel, or a bit more, to fly 350-ish passengers, depending upon cabin configuration." Ultimately, Concorde was profitable for both British Airways and Air France, but it was still extremely expensive to operate—and fairly bad for the environment, responsible for anywhere from two-and-a-half to seven times the emissions of subsonic aircraft, per Aerospace America.
Still, Grage is nostalgic for a time when air travel was a bit more glamorous.
"The Concorde experience was special," he says. "Picture yourself dining in an ultra-high-end gourmet restaurant on the edge of space, traveling faster than the muzzle velocity of a rifle bullet, and tearing up $100 bills as fast as you can. Now that was flying."
Apparently, too few people shared his enthusiasm. By the turn of the 21st century, demand for Concorde was waning and costs were creeping too high. The situation was made even worse by the fatal crash of Air France Flight 4590, a Concorde, in 2000, as well as the events of 9/11, which reduced demand even further. And thus, Concorde flew its last flight on October 24, 2003.
Catching supersonic flight up to speed
On January 12, 2024, engineers from NASA and Lockheed Martin pulled back the curtain to reveal their shiny new X-59 to an eager crowd. Cameras flashed as people applauded and praised the teams who developed the revolutionary, long-nosed plane that was nearly ready for flight.
When Concorde landed for the final time more than two decades back, no successors were ready to take the aircraft's place. But the quest to build a replacement started almost immediately. It wouldn't be an easy process; Concorde, for instance, cost the UK and France nearly $3 billion to develop, and the aircraft flew test flights for seven years before carrying any passengers. "The cost of developing, certifying, and manufacturing new aircraft is still a very high—almost insurmountable—bar," says business aviation expert David Rimmer, who flew on Concorde eight times.
First there's the issue of the sonic boom. In 1973, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned all civilian supersonic flights over land due to the boom's disruption to communities on the ground. This essentially meant that any new supersonic aircraft would have to slow down before approaching land, thus severely limiting its possible flight paths. As a result, NASA and Lockheed are currently attempting to stifle their aircraft's sonic boom so that it sounds like someone shutting a car door—then the plan is to convince the FAA to amend its rules.
That sound suppression technology would benefit private aerospace companies like Boom Supersonic. The Centennial, Colorado-based company is hard at work developing a commercial aircraft called Overture, designed to fly at a cruising speed of Mach 1.7, run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel, and seat up to 80 passengers.
But even if the noise problem is solved—and NASA passes along its technological discoveries—Boom would still face a question of demand. If an SST were to get off the ground, would there be enough willing customers to make it profitable for airlines? As Rimmer puts it: "It's not as if Spirit or Southwest or Ryanair will ever be in the supersonic market." It would be as if if Aston Martin started marketing to discount car lots.
Despite all this, not to mention the fact that they've yet to even develop the engine intended to power Overture, Boom's potential Concorde resurrection has managed to drum up quite a bit of interest. American Airlines, United Airlines, and Japan Airlines have all placed orders. (Though it’s worth noting that 18 airlines placed orders for the original Concorde, yet only two—British Airways and Air France—ever flew the plane.) But given that aviation giant Boeing's stock value is crashing after several highly publicized incidents onboard its 737 Max planes, it's hard to predict what the financial condition of the airline industry will be when a supersonic transport is finally ready for delivery.
Still, Rimmer hopes that a plane like Concorde will once again grace the friendly skies. He predicts that the speedy flight between London and New York would still strike big with business travelers, and envisions the potential for new routes to parts of Asia and the Middle East. In his mind, it's up to commercial airlines to lead the charge, before essentially subsidizing smaller aviation companies through their orders.
For now, Finn will take what he can get. He’s not getting any younger, and remains eager to see if NASA can literally silence one of the biggest hurdles for SSTs. And while the aircraft they're developing wouldn't technically cater to passengers, Finn hopes the storied government entity might make an exception for his 719th supersonic flight. "If I'm around, I would really jolly up to have a flight with NASA," he says.