Is it time for the FAA to revisit the ban on supersonic transport over the USA?

Is it time for the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to revise its ban on supersonic transport over the United States?

In 1973, the FAA banned civil supersonic flight over the United States due to its sonic boom and the potential for a supersonic aircraft’s engine exhaust to damage the ozone layer.

Samuel Hammond, poverty and welfare analyst at the Niskanen Center, and Eli Dourado, a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, recently published a research paper titled “Make America Boom Again”, stressing that it is now time for the FAA to revisit the ban.

Noise was the main reason for the prohibition of SST over US land in 1973.

But the authors of the paper argue that engineering has improved drastically since the time the Concorde was flying.

Supersonic transport to date

The only supersonic transport systems that have seen regular service to date have been the Concorde, which had a maximum speed over twice the speed of sound at Mach 2.04, and the Tupolev Tu-144, a retired jet airliner that became the first commercial transport to exceed Mach 2 on 26 May 1970.

An exception was made to the FAA’s ban of supersonic flights over the US in 1976, when the US secretary of transportation allowed the Concorde to land at JFK and Dulles airports.

British Airways Concorde in 1986
British Airways Concorde in 1986

While the Concorde operated, it only made transatlantic flights between Europe and cities in the Americas. But the British-French supersonic passenger jet airliner stopped operating in 2003.

The Concorde was certified to accommodate a maximum of 128 people, a fraction of the 500 passengers a Boeing 747 can carry. Accommodating just over a hundred people resulted in high costs per head, and as a result Concorde flights were much more expensive than others.

Air France and British Airways said the decision to retire Concorde was made because of low passenger numbers, high maintenance costs, and two major setbacks: the crash of Air France Flight 4590 and a drop in demand for air travel after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York.

But the Concorde had other issues, namely: noise. The aircraft produced a sonic boom as loud as 135 decibels when it reached land.

Time to revise the ban

In a summary of their report, the Hammond and Dourado said:

“Aircraft engineering has significantly improved since the time when the Concorde was flying.

With lighter materials, more efficient engines, better computer modeling, and more experience, it is more than possible to create an aircraft today that is both faster and more affordable than the Concorde was.”

Hammond and Dourado are calling for the ban to be rescinded by the FAA and replace it with a noise standard.

The authors believe that a noise limit of 85–90 A-weighted decibels “would be similar to noise standards for lawnmowers, blenders, and motorcycles, and would therefore be a reasonable standard during daytime hours.”

Implementing a noise standard as opposed to an outright ban of supersonic transportation over US land “would allow the aviation industry to use trial and error to develop commercially viable supersonic transport,” the authors added.

It’s important for firms to be able to experiment and work out how to attract passengers, reduce noise levels down, and generate a profit on supersonic flights.

In an article titled “The Business Case for Supersonic Overland”, Hammond said:

“The aircraft industry is notorious for having steep industry learning-curves—indeed, it’s where the economic theory of learning curves originates.

It’s also why allowing supersonic overland is so important to its long-run success and affordability.”