If you've ever wanted to travel faster than the speed of sound but you're not ready to become a fighter pilot, Boeing's (NYSE:BA) latest project may hold just the ticket for you. In cooperation with NASA, Boeing is testing to see whether the sonic boom created by commercial supersonic planes can be reduced. If it can, then the next supersonic plane could be coming to an airport near you. This project sounds awesome, but is it likely to skyrocket Boeing's stock? Here's what investors need to know.
The window in the sidewall of the 8- by 6-foot supersonic wind tunnel at NASA's Glenn Research Center shows a 1.79 percent scale model of a future concept supersonic aircraft built by Boeing. In recent tests, researchers evaluated the performance of air inlets mounted on top of the model to see how changing the amount of airflow at supersonic speeds through the inlet affected performance. The inlet on the pilot's right side (top inlet in this side view) is larger because it contains a remote-controlled device through which the flow of air could be changed. The work is part of ongoing research in NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate to address the challenges of making future supersonic flight over land possible. Researchers are testing overall vehicle design and performance options to reduce emissions and noise, and identifying whether the volume of sonic booms can be reduced to a level that leads to a reversal of the current ruling that prohibits commercial supersonic flight over land.
It's a bird, it's a plane... where'd it go?
In 1976, the Concorde, built by European Aeronautic Defense and Space and BAE Systems (NASDAQOTH:BAESY), embarked on its first commercial flight. Capable of traveling at twice the speed of sound and at 60,000 feet, by all accounts a trip on the Concorde was an incredible experience. However, such an experience didn't come cheap.
Ticket prices fluctuated based on a number of different factors. A "sale price" one-way ticket could start around $3,999 in 2003, with regular round-trip tickets ranging anywhere from $6,999 to more than $10,000. Again, that was in 2003. Still, there was decent demand until 2000, when an Air France Concorde crashed near Paris, killing everyone on board. Following that episode, and falling sales, in 2003 British Airways and Air France -- the two airlines operating the Concorde -- announced that due to declining passenger revenue and escalating maintenance costs, they were retiring the jet.
Is there a supersonic future?
The crash outside of Paris wasn't the only issue that led to the Concorde's grounding. While the plane was fast and luxurious, it was also incredibly fuel inefficient. Also, because of the sonic boom it created, air travel over land in the U.S. was prohibited, and in other parts of the world travel over heavily populated areas was restricted, which prevented possible lucrative travel routes.
When asked in 2003 about possible future demand for commercial supersonic travel, Philippe Camus, co-chief-executive of EADS, said, "You should never say never, but it will not happen anytime soon. There's no evidence there's any market for that."
Flight of the future?
Clearly, the above are important things to consider in pursuit of a commercial supersonic jet. And though details surrounding Boeing's project are currently on the down low, what can be said is that the tests being carried out focus on reducing noise and improving fuel consumption. Peter Coen, NASA's supersonic research project manager, stated, "We are working on technologies we feel represent barriers to bringing back successful supersonic aircraft." Also, he said that the basic design tests have been successful at reducing noise from a sonic boom to an acceptable "thump."
Further, Joe Lissenden, an industry expert and the director of aerospace and defense consulting in the Americas for IHS Jane's, told CNN that "It's likely that a next-generation supersonic commercial aircraft will emerge. High demand from passengers, historic profitability on the routes and significant technological improvements have combined to make supersonic flight all the more viable."
The Concorde competition
Boeing isn't the only company working on a supersonic jet. Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) is also working with NASA to overcome barriers to a supersonic commercial jet, and has seen success with its design. Plus, Aerion Corporation, a company dedicated to supersonic flight, has teamed up with Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of United Technologies (NYSE:UTX), to produce a 12-passenger supersonic plane that it believes will enter flight service in 2020.
Keep your eyes on the sky
The completion of a commercial supersonic jet is still a ways off, and whether any of these companies will produce a viable commercial option has yet to be seen. Even if they do, there's still the question of whether or not a market exists for supersonic travel. But by the same token, flying on the Concorde was an experience, and I imagine there are plenty of people who want that same opportunity. If Boeing, Lockheed, or Aerion, develop a fuel-efficient, "quiet" supersonic jet, I imagine it'll prove lucrative to their bottom line -- I, for one, would love to travel faster than the speed of sound, at least once. As such, if the supersonic jet takes off, investors in the company behind it could also see their stock climb.