Don’t Let Bogus Environmental Claims Bring Down Supersonic Flight

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When the Concorde flew its maiden at faster-than-sound speed across the Atlantic in 1969, the future looked supersonic.

The British company partially responsible for its production predicted they would sell 225 planes by 1975 under “the most pessimistic assumptions.” Major airplane makers fretted privately about how they would compete while billions of federal dollars poured into developing a rival all-American Concorde-killer.

Flash forward 40 years. It turns out, only 14 Concordes ever entered service, flying at a loss until they were retired in 2003. That still beat the U.S. alternative, the Boeing 2707, which was so ambitious it never flew. How could the predictions have been so wrong?

In a way, the incredible technological optimism of the 1960s was beaten down by an even more influential techno-pessimism. The nascent environmental movement, under the banner of the “Anti-Concorde Project,” warned sonic booms would shatter windows and disturb wildlife, while high-altitude emissions would cause catastrophic ozone loss, despite evidence to the contrary.

Their fear-mongering prevailed, leading the U.S. Congress to cut funding and ban supersonic overland flights in 1973. The result has been a long-lasting, industry-wide chilling effect on supersonic transport research and development.

Now the story is set to repeat itself. Several innovative aerospace companies are on the verge of resurrecting supersonic air travel with new, improved technology—including U.S. startups such as Aerion Supersonic, Boom Technologies, and Spike Aerospace, as well as established aerospace industry pioneers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin — and old-guard environmentalists are once again cherry-picking facts in an attempt to squash the fledgling efforts before they get off the ground.

Writing recently in the New York Times, Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, argued that supersonic planes should be stopped because they purportedly harm the upper atmosphere and add to global airline emissions.

Pope cited a 1999 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that predates the latest potential improvements to the planes’ fuel efficiency, when are being driven by computer-optimized carbon-fiber airframes and better jet engines — and thus doesn’t take into account the factors that could enable supersonic air travel’s comeback in the first place.

In a similar move, the International Council on Clean Transportation released a report predicting dire environmental consequences from supersonic emissions. The report,  however, relies on marketing designs from a single company’s website and, where public data was lacking, efficiency projections from older supersonic engine models.

On both counts — potential harms to the ozone layer from high-altitude flight and a new source of carbon dioxide emissions — Pope and other skeptics are living in the past.

“The difficulty in early programs was lack of credible understanding of atmospheric science,” notes former Gulfstream VP of Programs, Preston A. Henne, in an article for the Journal of Aircraft. “The absence of such knowledge left the door open for wild and exaggerated claims of atmospheric trauma based on speculation, misinformation, and political agendas.”

Today’s environmentalists have no such excuse. The worst environmental fears about supersonic flight were all but dismissed in the mid-70s after researchers realized nuclear tests conducted by the United States and Soviet Union injected more nitrogen oxide in the upper atmosphere than “500 Concordes [flying] seven hours a day for some five years” without causing significant ozone problems.

Our understanding of the atmosphere has improved exponentially in the years since. We now know, for example, that supersonic planes deplete very little ozone cruising at 50,000 feet, and are essentially “ozone neutral” overall, because they create a similar amount at lower altitudes.

When it comes to carbon dioxide, emissions from commercial aircraft only account for roughly 2 percent of the world total. At these levels, air travel is simply not the main driver of climate change.

But even if supersonic aircraft inevitably require more energy, the international community has already created a backstop to prevent aviation emissions from rising.

The International Civil Aviation Organization’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation ensures there will be no net emissions growth from 2020 onward across the entire industry. This applies to both supersonic and subsonic flights in all major developed countries and will take effect years before any commercial supersonic planes take flight.

By calling for a halt to supersonic innovation in favor of existing technologies, Pope and company are doing no favors for the environmental movement, which has strived in recent decades to shed its anti-technology, anti-progress reputation.

The truth is the aviation industry has every incentive to reduce its carbon footprint, as fuel efficiency translates directly into lower prices and more profits. The Boeing’s 787 is 20 to 30 percent more fuel efficient than earlier designs, for example. Given the chance, supersonic plane manufacturers will make similar improvements over time.

With the next generation of supersonic passenger jets projected to launch with fares on par with conventional business class, they won’t just be cleaner than the Concorde—they’ll be more affordable, too, helping increase accessibility to every corner of Spaceship Earth.

Samuel Hammond is the director of poverty and welfare studies at the Niskanen Center.

Alan McQuinn is a senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.