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

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


Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Flying is the worst. With each commercial flight, Americans get groped, jostled, cramped, and corralled like cattle. But the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) isn't the only government agency that needlessly adds to our jet-setting woes. If not for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) meddling in supersonic flight innovation, we could zip around the world in a fraction of the time.

Five decades ago, the future of aerospace engineering was incredibly bright. As international rivals raced to put humans into space, scientists applied new technologies to improve the speed, comfort, and safety of terrestrial air travel. The U.S.-based McDonnell Douglas and Boeing spearheaded the era of commercial jet transportation with the introduction of the Douglas DC-8 and Boeing 707 in the late 1950s. Our European friends got into the aviation game in the 1970s with the Airbus A300, while Lockheed Martin followed up with the L-1011 TriStar around the same time.

With competition and research came innovation. By the mid-1970s, engineers were building "supersonic" aircraft capable of traveling well above 767 miles per hour (mph), the speed of sound. In one decade, the top airplane speed on record more than doubled, from 698.5 mph in 1952 to 1,665.9 mph in 1962. By 1976, U.S. military pilot Eldon W. Joerz managed to navigate the Lockheed SR-71 "Blackbird" to a blazing 2,193 mph, almost three times the speed of sound.

Commercial crafts never traveled quite that fast. But supersonic civilian flight was indeed once a reality. From 1976 to 2003, passengers in a hurry could hop on a majestic Concorde supersonic airliner in London's Heathrow Airport and arrive in New York City in a little over three measly hours. Try the same on a boring old Boeing 747 and you're looking at a travel time of at least 7 or 8 hours.

Very few of us have enjoyed the thrill and convenience of a supersonic flight. This is partly due to economics: Both the Concorde (1,350 mph) and the Soviet Union's Tupolev Tu-44 (1,200 mph) faced early retirements for financial reasons.

But this does not explain why top airplane speeds have lagged behind for so many decades. Today, 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. My Mercatus Center colleagues Eli Dourado and Michael Kotrous recently dug into airspeed data compiled by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), an international sports aviation measurement and standard-setting body. Their finding: Innovation in air travel speeds came to a grinding halt after Joerz's still-unbroken record-setting feat in 1976. 

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.

A British primary-school teacher and environmentalist named Richard Wiggs also activated the public in an anti-SST campaign. His Anti-Concorde Project took out full-page ads in papers of record, alarming readers that the "sonic bangs" would be "by far the loudest noise they have ever heard." His other large argument—that British and French taxpayers should not have been compelled to subsidize the development of the Concorde—will be more sympathetic to Reason readers. But unfortunately, the misleading and paranoiac public-outrage campaign disseminated by the Anti-Concorde Project and the allied Citizens League Against the Sonic Boom served as the catalyst for innovation-killing policies.

Obviously, very few of us would tolerate aviation technology that—elegant and rapid though it may be—ripped holes through homes and shattered windows with each passing flight. Supersonic flights that merely made annoying, but non-destructive, booms every now and then might generate some heated discussion, but that's something that more people could live with. What is imperative is that scientists and policymakers have enough time to sift through factual evidence before assessing what level of risk or downside the public is willing to tolerate.

To their credit, the FAA did team up with NASA and the U.S. Air Force to preemptively test and measure the outcomes of SST from 1958 through 1968. Contrary to the city-shattering rhetoric emanating from the anti-SST crowd, the sonic booms generated by SST over land in the U.S. were predictable and mild. In several of the tests, people down below did not notice that anything was amiss at all. In one test over St. Louis in 1962, only about 35 percent of the interviewees were even mildly annoyed by the sonic booms at all and less than 10 percent thought about registering a formal complaint (only 1 percent bothered to actually do it).

In another series of tests over Oklahoma City in 1964, the scientists carefully selected a representative sample of buildings to observe the effects of regular SST flights on day-to-day life for half a year. A surprising 73 percent of the participants felt they could live with the everyday effects of SST travel without any issue. Around 40 percent of respondents said they believed SST caused structural damage to their home, but the scientists were unable to find physical evidence for this themselves. Perhaps the participants were simply imaging things, or perhaps the scientists were not being as judicious as they should in finding damage. More research was needed.

To better understand the specific structural effects of SST travel, scientists constructed an entire miniature town of fake "houses"—like those atomic testing sites so favored in Hollywood movies— at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in 1964 and 1965 to get an inside peak into just how well those windows and tiles would hold up. Sixteen types of buildings were created, fitted out with standard construction materials of varying quality to get a better idea of how homes of all income brackets would fare. After almost 1,500 booms, the results were broadly encouraging: plasters of all kinds were just fine, glass only chipped when poorly mounted (and not by much), and stucco held up. And if you were worried about the chickens, fear not—sonic booms do not negatively affect egg hatchabliity.

Alas, paranoid conjectures about crumbling cities and bursting eardrums proved more salient to policymakers than measured data on plasterboard resiliency. The FAA ban on supersonic flight over the U.S. has persisted to this day, and with it, our continued misery in the skies.

But things could be changing. The Denver-based start-up Boom Technology is developing aircraft to travel at speeds up to 1,451 mph—twice the speed of sound. Airspace veteran Virgin is teaming up with Boom to revive the London-New York SST route blazed by Concorde so many decades ago. And speaking of Concorde, its passionate fans in Club Concorde just might pull off their crazy dream of crowdfunding enough money to put the beloved beauty back in the sky. Japan and NASA are jumping into the heady world of SST travel as well. 

Yet all of this capital investment will be for nothing if policy remains the same. Allowing SST over U.S. territory would do a lot to improve the profitability odds for this historically-challenging market. The FAA has an opportunity to open the gates to major innovation by making one small policy change: Remove the outright ban on supersonic travel. Instead, designate a minimum noise level that entrepreneurs must target to be airworthy. That's it!

The agency has considered this policy before, but remained unfortunately stubborn in a 2008 statement: it will not issue a noise standard until the "noise impacts of supersonic flight are shown to be acceptable." But this Kafkaesque stance is virtually no different from an outright ban: entrepreneurs can't show which noise impacts of SST flight are "acceptable" without have a definition of "acceptable" to shoot for.

Fortunately, as technologists and even policymakers begin to see airspace as another platform for innovation, the appetite for "permissionless innovation" policy-reforms is growing. The FAA could be a champion for the next great American industry as soon as it decides to change. 

NEXT: The System Really Is Rigged: City Officials Bend Booze, Ridesharing Rules During DNC, RNC

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  1. U.S.-based McConnell Douglas

    Commercial crafts never traveled quite that fast


    1. Today, most airlines cruise at altitudes well below the speed of sound


      1. His other large argument…will be more sympathetic to Reason readers.

        OK, I give up. Apparently, so did the editors.

        1. It got waved through because they needed to burnish the “libertarian” image of the site.

          Also I don’t think reason knows what an editor is and gives the title to writers instead.

        2. Here’s another:

          Designate a minimum noise level that entrepreneurs must target to be airworthy.

          Reaching a minimum noise level should be easy. Designating a maximum noise level would be more meaningful.

          1. Beltwayspeak

      2. “Oh, very well. ‘… attitudes well below the rate of speed of sound’.”

        1. To be fair, the speed of sound does change depending upon altitude.

          1. Changes in altitude,
            changes in certitude!
            Indeed, indeed-itude!


  2. Very nice article. Thanks for the break from election coverage.

  3. In a single test, 10 % were pissed enough to start thinking about a formal complaint? What happens when the flights are all day, every day?

    Congressmen get fired. That’s what happens.

    1. And this is a negative result?

  4. FAA didn’t kill SST; the free market did.

    I’m old enough to remember fairly frequent sonic booms from military aircraft. There is no way that the public would tolerate the noise if a significant fraction of civilian flights went supersonic. Of course, fuel economy considerations would preclude that from happening. SST was and will forever be an extreme luxury that the rich and famous, and of course their political elites, use for transcontinental and intercontinental trips that are so long that their private jets are too slow.

    As long as I do not have to pay one nickel for any stage of the development and execution of SST, I don’t care what these people do. However, last time I checked, NASA is funded by taxpayers. Boom Technology, which has $2.4 million of equity funding to date, is going to need a bunch of money to get an SST off the ground. Watcha bet their business plan includes future taxpayer-funded subsidies of one sort or another?

    I really do not see the sense in SST. It’s not going to offer much time saving except for intercontinental flights. Cutting wait times for all the pre-boarding check-in and security measures, improving on-time performance of conventional aircraft, and cutting wait times for various ground services necessary after arrival would offer orders-of-magnitude more to ordinary air travelers. Due to fuel economy, a SST passenger would certainly pay more than a full-fare first-class passenger does now.

    1. Personally, I’ve no problem with first-class, or even business class, intercontinental travel as it is now except for the inefficient, unpredictable, and unnecessary waits before takeoff and after arrival. After I board the plane, I order a glass of champagne. A few minutes after takeoff, I enjoy chilled Russian vodka with caviar and watch the movie or TV show of my choice. Then I enjoy a good meal with good wine. If I need to I can get some work done. If not, I recline my seat into a bed and go to sleep. Either way, the extra hours on the plane are not wasted. The time wasted on my trip occurs on the ground.

      First-class travel is the lifestyle of the 1% and frequent fliers. Of course, it’s not good enough for the 0.1% so they want taxpayers to subsidize SST.

    2. Yes, this piece is a joke and fails to enforce the point that the only pseudo-commercial SST was really government subsidized. Just more of Gillespie’s fighter jetz.

    3. Fuel costs could be cut dramatically if someone can figure out how to build an airliner capable of super-cruise, ie flying supersonic without afterburners. I’m pretty sure there are fighter jets currently capable of super-cruise, but I have no idea how difficult it would be to adapt this to a much larger aircraft.

      Personally, I’d love to see a new SST. The fewer tax-funded subsidies involved, the more I’d love it.

      1. The Concorde super-cruised.

        No one is using after-burner for very long – its incredibly inefficient and cuts your flight time down to minutes once you start using it.

        One of our AF weenies could give you more accurate info on how much fuel using it consumes.

        1. The aircraft used reheat (afterburners) at take-off and to pass through the upper transonic regime and to supersonic speeds, between Mach 0.95 and Mach 1.7. The afterburners were switched off at all other times.


        2. Yes, it’s a physics problem not an FAA problem. Every second you’re above about 70% of the speed of sound physics is violently attempting to force you back below; the air can’t get out of your way above that, you’re literally brute forcing your way through the air. It’s basically the difference between doing the 100 yard dash on land and trying to do the 100 yard dash in a swimming pool, you’ll expend orders of magnitude more effort just to go a little bit faster.

      2. The F-22 is capable of super-cruise. Unfortunately it’s about the loudest airplane I’ve ever heard (and I heard an SR-71 once). They routinely take off and land at Fairbanks and I spent an afternoon watching them there. They make F-16’s and F-18’s sound quiet. Nobody would tolerate that kind of noise in a city.

        1. I lived a mile from JFK airport growing up. We routinely had the Concorde approach and depart over my house. It was so loud that you couldn’t carry on a conversation for at least 10+ seconds until it passed. I’ve heard the F22 at an air show. If memory serves, the noise level was comparable to the Concorde.

    4. I was coming to say that.

      SST sounds good – but the reality is that even now we don’t know enough about the shaping of the shock wave to design craft to minimize the noise and that means only going SS well out to see and over water. Which means the utility of it is pretty damn small.

      Small enough that the only SST line was a multi-government boondogle between the UK and France and even that struggled to break even for the duration of its life. No one else, not even flights to Asia from NA, has looked at SST and seen a way to make money.

      The FAA putting restrictions on SST over land *only applies to the US anyway*. So if it was doable then one or more of these other lines could have done it.

      On top of that, its basically 1,500 miles from one side of the US to the other. 3-4 hours flight time. SST would cut that down to 2-3 and jack the price up 50%. That shit might have flown during the regulation era but today airlines are exactly like Greyhound – hell, people take flights at 2 in the morning and are willing to pay extra for checked luggage and food in flight just to keep the ticket price down.

      The sorts of people that would pay for over-US SST are the sorts of people that would just teleconference anyway.

      1. Agammamon, that’s one of the areas a few of my professors were working on. My structures prof was working on the shape of hypersonic vehicles for rapid deployment of cruise missiles for a DoD contractor.

      2. [quote]On top of that, its basically 1,500 miles from one side of the US to the other. 3-4 hours flight time. SST would cut that down to 2-3 and jack the price up 50%.[/quote]

        It’s 2600 miles in the air from LA to Boston. Flight time I’m not 100% sure of but it’s well over 3-4 hours. I would say closer to 5 or 6. These coast to coast flights are the only domestic ones where SST might make sense is my guess. I could see the value on long distance intercontinental flights, but as others have said here there’s nothing preventing that now (FAA only has jurisdiction in US domestic travel.)

    5. I remember the sonic booms as well. That said lots of work has been done already in this area. Aircraft can be design such that sonic booms are not as loud. Also the altitude that an aircraft flies at while supersonic has a big effect. I can recall some incredibly loud sonic booms back in the 70’s, but most of them just got my attention. I think creating a regulation that said at ground level the sonic boom may not be above a specific db level while flying over or near land would be all that is needed. This would at least give a target for manufactures to work towards. The manufacturer could then specify to the airlines or other customers at what altitudes and speeds they meet these requirements. I think a good stating point would be to look at noise levels that many communities impose on construction companies working in residential zones. If I remember correctly they often impose a different daytime and nighttime limit, which could also be used. I can see a Supersonic Red-eye flight from LA to NYC causing lots of complaints that a regular daytime flight might not.

    6. Due to fuel economy, a SST passenger would certainly pay more than a full-fare first-class passenger does now.

      Not just more? a whole hell of a lot more.

      From “My Ride on the Concorde” (2004):

      Such speed didn’t come cheap, though: A transatlantic flight required the high-maintenance aircraft to gulp jet fuel at the rate of one ton per seat, and the average round-trip price was $12,000.

      Using the BLS’s inflation calculator, I get $15,312.10 in 2016 dollars.

      A round trip ticket from LHR to JFK ranges from $1,061 to $1,179 on regular commercial service and lasts between 7 hours 30 minutes to 7 hours 45 minutes. So cutting between 4.5 and 4.75 hours out of a flight would cost between $14,133.1 and $14,251.1, giving you a cost of $3,000.23 and $3,140.69 per hour. You’d need to make over $6.25 million a year to justify that expense.

    7. I remember sonic booms from the air base 10 miles from our house. We thought they were cool as kids. Not deafening at all, more like thunder. They shook the windows a little sometimes. Big whup. I’m tired of it taking 12 hours to fly to Korea.

  5. “Sonic boom!”
    –Maj. William F. Guile, USAF, 1991

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  7. As someone who lives right next to a couple of airports and hears 4-5 planes flying overhead every afternoon, I’m okay with not having a loud “boom” over my house all day.

    1. There would be no sonic booms over your house as a result of the operation of the airport. The SSTs only go supersonic at high altitudes.

      1. If you are correct, random internet person, I’d be okay with it. As long as I can’t hear it while I’m in my house… like at all.

        1. He’s right… but it would likely still be really loud, the things that are done to make jet engines quieter tend to not be a good tradeoff for supersonic flight.

  8. I grew up in KC, MO in the mid-late 60’s. Sonic booms were a near daily occurrence, at least a couple a week. But then I was no older than 10 so my memory might be inaccurate.

    At least, the photo that accompanies the article is of one of the coolest airplanes ever built.

    1. Jinx!

    2. “At least, the photo that accompanies the article is of one of the coolest airplanes ever built.”

      Yeah man, the B-58 Convair was a real Hustler
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convair_B-58_Hustler !!! When I gradu-tated the USAF Academy in 1958? Where, in simulated “POW” training, I was “Criminal Number 444”, by the way? I helped design and fly that dream war machine shortly thereafter! ? And if’n that personal info allows anyone to “break my code” and figure out who I really am? I’m too old any moah to care!!!

      -Old Former Warmonger Who “Learned Better”

  9. The B-58 bomber pictured was never quite successful, but I think it is one of the coolest looking airplanes ever.

    BTW, I used to work space shuttle landings, and man the sonic booms from that were loud. It was awesome: two thunderous booms echoed across the land. Booms that loud would be annoying if they happened all the time. But as the article said, SSTs would be much quieter.

    1. (Sorry if this comment appears multiple times. Think there is squirrel action today.)

      I may be wrong about SSTs being quieter than the Space Shuttle. This NASA page says that the overpressure of the shock wave from the Concord was higher than that from the Space Shuttle.

      NASA Armstrong Fact Sheet: Sonic Booms

  10. The statement that supersonic flight generates shock waves that become compressed into one super-loud “sonic boom” isn’t quite clear. That shock wave is continuous, and follows the aircraft; if the plane flies 2,600 miles from NYC to LA, then there is a swath of “boom” that long, and the loudest part may be ten miles on either side of the flight path. Take tens of thousands of square miles of “boom”, multiplied by the number of flights, and you can see why supersonic flight over the continent isn’t popular.
    There has been research on mitigating the boom; certainly, if that is done, the FAA will quickly reconsider their order.

    1. Right. I like to visualize the shock wave from a supersonic aircraft as a wake from a boat. They are actually fairly analogous phenomena.

      When the wake passes by, in water you bob up and down, or in air you hear a boom. Same thing.

  11. As someone else already mentioned, the big issue – from a customer perspective – isn’t aircraft speed. It’s delays on the ground. Now the TSA wants you to show up at the airport two hours before your flight leaves. Could you imagine having to arrive at a train or bus station two hours early?

    If your goal is to speed up air travel time, the low hanging fruit is in reforming the security theater.

  12. Anyone who’s ever flown across the Pacific at 600 mph knows the real market for super-sonic travel.

    1. Indeed.

      Concorde had a range of 4505 mi but the LAX-PEK route is 6238 mi. The next commercial SST needs a much longer range to make it really profitable.

      1. It needs a richer world to make it profitable. All else being equal, faster speeds burn more fuel. Commercial transportation is almost 100% driven by per-mile cost.

        People accept better products at higher cost when they become wealthy enough to do so. The technology for SST exists today. What we’re waiting for is per capita global GDP to rise to the point where people can afford to use it.

        1. Which is why the proper testing ground for commercial SST technology would be in private business jets. Which would require the FAA to come up with maximum decimal levels instead of a flat out ban. That being said, people complain too much for that to become a reality in this country.

  13. But fans of the Flash on the CW know the real reason SST was shelved — get to Mach 2 or 3 and the Speed Force opens a time portal and you’ll have all kinds of people going back and forth in time trying to fix everything they screwed up every day. And the time wraiths would be everywhere tracking us down.

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  15. I was born in the late 1950’s about 20 miles from March AFB and just a little bit farther from Edwards. Sonic booms happened frequently, so I leaned as a wee tot to get away from the sliding glass doors when one occurred. You’d be surprised how far glass can flex without breaking and it’s quite scary to see. Anyway, they aren’t as loud as a thunder clap directly overhead, but I’ve never seen a glass door bend a half inch from one of those. It’s probably due to it being a lower frequency BOOM rather than the CRACK of thunder.

    The biggest problem with supersonic flight is high cost. Even if it is subsidized only the rich can afford it and unsubsidized only the very rich.

  16. The whole discussion is academic since the global warming crowd has gotten the EPA to plan regulating commercial aircraft CO2 emissions. In 10 years we’ll be lucky to hit 570 MPH, and to have seats without pedals underneath.

  17. Why should the FAA revive supersonic flight?

  18. Mom always said; go like hell…you’ll get there.

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