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Make America Boom Again! Could the Ban on Supersonic Flights Over Land Be Lifted?

Dec. 16, 2016
3 min read
Make America Boom Again! Could the Ban on Supersonic Flights Over Land Be Lifted?
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It's been over 40 years since the Federal Aviation Administration banned supersonic travel over the United States, but that could change if some members of Congress have their way.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the incoming chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, has assembled a list of regulations his group would like to see repealed by the new White House administration. On the list is the FAA's supersonic ban, with the simple explanation "Make Sonic Boom Again."

Many folks might not know why a ban exists in the first place. When an object travels at supersonic speed, the waves of pressure around it are compressed together and merge into a shock wave. Traveling at the speed of sound, this shock wave trails behind the object like wake turbulence and as it reaches the ground, it creates a pair of loud booming sounds. This is known as a "sonic boom."

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But it's not just the noise. Sonic booms can be powerful enough to rattle buildings and break windows. In the 1960s, NASA and the FAA attempted to determine the effects of supersonic travel by carrying out a series of 1,253 sonic booms over Oklahoma City. The experiment had to be ended early after over 15,000 complaints were received and 147 broken windows were reported on the two tallest buildings in the city alone.

The most famous commercial supersonic aircraft, Concorde, was operated by British Airways and Air France for nearly 30 years, but due to the FAA's overland ban, the two airlines were forced to restrict their use of the plane to transatlantic flights between East Coast cities and London and Paris.

NASA and others in the airline industry have wrestled with the problem of sonic booms and believe today's technology could provide a major improvement. By altering the shape of the aircraft, sonic booms might be as quiet as the sound of a propeller plane passing 1,000 feet from the ground.

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But even if technology were invented to reduce sonic booms or the FAA's ban were repealed, it's not clear that the US would see a return of supersonic travel anytime soon. Concorde was retired in 2003, and while some believe the FAA's restriction has hurt the demand for new supersonic aircraft development, others claim the larger issue with supersonic travel is economic. Supersonic travel requires an immense amount of fuel and resources, and current subsonic planes are relatively fast. Airlines and passengers may not be willing to spend a huge premium just to save a couple of hours.

When Concorde was in operation, round-trip tickets could cost as much as $10,000 due to the high cost of operating the plane. But there was a way to redeem miles for a trip: Just 125,000 miles on British Airways partner Qantas could get you that round-trip ticket. Of course, back then miles were much less plentiful than they are today, so it could take a very long time to gather that many.

Still, if supersonic flight does return, how many miles do you think it'd be worth to fly from New York to Seattle in under 4 hours?

H/T: Washington Post