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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
Supersonic flight 'doomed'
Boeing subsonic plane
An artist's impression of the future Boeing subsonic aircraft
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Keep on packing your paperbacks when you are taking a long-haul flight because supersonic planes are never going to take off.

Sceptics say plans to use aircraft that fly faster than the speed of sound to slash journey times are "doomed".

No future supersonic transport will be anything other than a flop

Richard Wiggs, Anti-Concorde Project

Environmental objections will severely limit the routes the futuristic planes can fly, making them uneconomic to develop and operate.

Former activists who campaigned against Concorde say any attempts to run a supersonic service would provoke the same level of protests that dogged the earlier jet.

Supersonic stymied

Next month Nasa will conduct the maiden test flights of its futuristic X-43A jet, designed to fly at ten times the speed of sound. Nasa scientists working on the aircraft said that if it was used commercially it would be able to fly from London to New York in 40 minutes.

But experts say there is little chance that this plane, or any other supersonic transport jet, will ever be used to set up a commercial service.

"No future supersonic transport will be anything other than a flop," said Richard Wiggs, co-ordinator of the Anti-Concorde Project in the late 60s and 70s and an expert on the economics of such aircraft.

F18 sonic boom
An F18 fighter jet breaks the sound barrier in dramatic style
Mr Wiggs said no countries would let Concorde cause a sonic boom over their territory which limited it to routes over oceans or wilderness.

While Concorde was being developed, many airlines signed up to buy the jet, but backed off when it became obvious that it could only fly a small number of routes.

Originally the Anglo-French partnership developing Concorde had orders for 200 planes, but this dwindled to none by the time the aircraft was ready to go into service.

New millennium, old objections

Mr Wiggs said nothing has changed now and few countries would be willing to let a airliner fly at supersonic speed through their airspace. "The noise from any size engine capable of driving a supersonic plane are going to be far outside the limits imposed on other aircraft operating today," he said.

The failure of Concorde caused the Russians to stop development of its Tu-144 and the US Congress to cease funding for its supersonic craft.

"The climate of public opinion throughout the world will be very much more unfavourable to the introduction of such machines now than it was 30-40 years ago," he said.

John Stewart, head of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise that represents people living under the flight path at Heathrow, said people really start to object when the number of planes using an airport increases and noise becomes constant.

"Our members describe living on the Heathrow flight path like living under a sky of sound," he said, adding that they would be unwilling to swap this for "a sky of supersonic sound."

High-speed pollution

Mr Wiggs said it was more than just complaints about noise that limited Concorde's appeal to the world's airlines. He added that worries about the pollution caused by supersonic jets, thought eccentric in the 1960s, are now much better understood.

A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has the job of estimating who is contributing what to global change, estimates the air industry contribution at about 3.5%.

Hyper-X plane
Nasa's Hyper-X experimental aircraft in the lab
But if a significant number of supersonic jets went into service, this contribution would be far higher, said Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation, which monitors pollution caused by the air industry.

"If there was another generation of supersonic aircraft and there were 1000 of them flying by 2050, the climate impact would be five times greater," said Mr Johnson. Because supersonic jets fly at much higher altitude than subsonic aircraft, the pollution they pump out has a far more damaging effect, he said.

Mr Johnson doubted that a supersonic aircraft could be built which could overcome both the noise and pollution problems caused by a large fleet of such craft.

Mr Wiggs said Boeing announced plans to create a Sonic Cruiser that would fly near, rather than beyond, the speed of sound. "Boeing has done its sums better this time than in the 1960s and realised it could not be a money maker for them," he said.

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