Flying higher

CHARGED spoke with Jim Haas, regional director, product marketing, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, for the scoop on the Sonic Cruiser, due to enter into service in 2007 or 2008, and to find out what’s waiting in the wings for the passenger of the future.

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By  Kate Concannon Published  December 12, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|In 1933, Boeing proudly announced its (US) coast to coast service, which delivered passengers from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian in just 20 hours and seven stops. If that’s amusing, look at the plane that carried these passengers of yore (model 247), or, better still, consider that the 20 hour flight knocked 7.5 hours off the previous standard.
By the 1950’s, Boeing’s jet was firing and the direct service had travellers up in the big blue beyond for only 8 hours — a relative revolution. Fifty years on, Boeing has unveiled the progeny of significant advances made in materials, configuration, aerodynamics and engine technology: the Sonic Cruiser.

Meanwhile, the A380 by aviation legend Airbus, with whom Boeing has long shared a par-for-par aircraft model relationship of sorts, has been presented as the ultimate vehicle for delivering in-flight entertainment that takes the boredom, confinement and general drain out of air travel. Rather, images of on-board shopping malls, restaurants, bars and casinos promote the idea that holiday fun begins not upon arrival, but the moment the seatbelt light turns off.

When Airbus first went public about the upcoming A380, the purported king of extra-large aircraft, all eyes turned to Boeing to see what they would do next. What they’ve revealed with the Sonic Cruiser is an entirely surprising diversion. But with the A380’s oh so appealing vision of entertainment packed travel, why has Boeing chosen to focus its efforts on developing the Sonic Cruiser? And what is its view of the future of air travel? CHARGED spoke with Jim Haas, regional director, product marketing, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, for the scoop on the Sonic Cruiser, due to enter into service in 2007 or 2008, and to find out what’s waiting in the wings for the passenger of the future.

Like the A380, taking the pain out of travel is at the heart of the Sonic Cruiser project, but, arguably, Boeing’s approach is just a little more practical. Rather than the fun-factory, circus atmosphere Airbus hopes will alleviate long haul flights, Boeing believes that passengers want faster travel that takes only limited hours out of tight schedules.

||**||Travel time|~||~||~|Jim Haas believes that, conveniently, this is what airlines and airports want too. “When we saw Airbus’ A380 marketing images, they rang a familiar bell. Images of luxurious, spacious travel — cocktail lounges, piano bars — are reminiscent of what we at Boeing put together when we launched the 747, but the bottom line is it’s not a reality, appealing as it may be.

Customers want fast and economical flights, and airlines can’t make money by devoting passenger seating space to sofas and play areas without charging huge premiums.” A full size billiard table and swimming pool won’t cut travelling hours either, and it is the desire to traverse great distances with minimum fuss, at reasonable fares, with reduced airport congestion that Boeing’s Sonic Cruiser is tapping into.

Travel time is a major concern for both business and leisure travellers. Travelling executives working within strict time constraints rely on fuss-free, punctual travel to conduct their business effectively and efficiently, and neither do holiday-makers wish to have their precious escape affected by hassles and delays. Jim Haas expresses the uncertainty and irritation that plagues travellers forced to face ‘connecting’ flight stress: “even if I make my next flight, will my luggage?”

Boeing has identified three ways in which travel time can be reduced, and the experience thus made all the more bearable: aircraft capable of greater speed; aircraft capable of traversing greater distances, and therefore more direct flights (which cut out layover time — too often drawn out by missed connections), and reduced airport congestion.

The proposed Sonic Cruiser, shaped to cut through drag forces, is designed to be capable of flying at a speed of Mach 0.98, that is to say at 98% of the speed of sound, with a cruising speed of at least Mach 0.95 (750 mph). This equates to a speed anywhere between 15%-20% faster than that at which commercial airplanes are currently capable of flying.

The proposed cruising speed of the A380, on the other hand, is expected to be in the vicinity of Mach 0.85 (560 mph). The Sonic Cruiser’s significantly higher velocity is backed up by the ability to travel at a higher altitude, which makes for a far smoother ride. It will have a cruising altitude around the mid 40,000 foot mark, which gives it a 10,000 foot advantage over the extra-large Airbus.

||**||Direct purpose|~||~||~|But it isn’t just the Sonic Cruiser’s super speed that Boeing believes will facilitate faster travel for the passenger of the future. Firstly, the Sonic Cruiser’s ability to fly at higher altitudes will reduce the impact of traffic congestion — an emerging concern within the industry, and largely attributed to the vast number of passengers having to fly through airports that are not their final destination — upon any flight’s progression. More importantly, the aircraft will be able to fly continuously for 9,000 nautical miles — that is 16,668km — or more.

This opens up the potential for more point-to-point service to be offered within the industry. Increasing numbers of direct flights will become feasible, resulting in reduction of both airport congestion and travel time, as time-consuming layovers for refuelling become redundant.

The overall result of this three-fold strategy is estimated to equate to a travel time reduction of about 20%, increasing with the length of the journey. In real terms, a trip from the United States to Asia would be reduced from around 14 hours to 11 hours — a far cry from the 20 hours once required just to cross the North American continent.

According to Jim Haas, and significant research conducted by Boeing, it is this time saving that travellers are primarily seeking, not parties and games along the way to distract them from the discomfort and tedium.

“They want to go where they want to go, when they want to go, and in the least amount of time possible.” As Haas, explains, “it is the customers that drive services”, and, now Boeing is finalising the very equipment that makes great headway in granting the customers’ wishes, it’s only a matter of airlines implementing the services accordingly.

With the Sonic Cruiser capable of seating between 100 and 300 passengers, and using no more fuel than equivalent sized planes (unlike the other high speed option, the gas thirsty Concorde), the economical viability is all in place, for both airlines and passengers. All this is not to say, however, that Boeing has placed the issue of providing genuinely engaging on-board entertainment on the back burner.

On the contrary, it is actively involved in developing systems that will appeal to a wider audience by offering a wider range of options. These entertainment systems must also be revenue efficient such that they will actually achieve airline approval and adoption. Connexion is the embodiment of Boeing’s entertainment system development division’s efforts, and it is expected that some airlines will have Connexion up and flying some way into 2002.

||**||Passenger of the future|~||~||~|The key to this system is the Boeing designed phased array antenna that allows satellite communication, despite the constant motion and shifting angle of the aircraft. With this level of constant, high speed broadband access, Connexion will provide passengers with the ability to tap into the Internet, the passenger’s own company intranet, live TV, news, shopping, airline and destination information, and any other services accessible through these platforms.

Additionally, in order to create a more comfortable environment for the traveller, Boeing is exploring possible improvements in space designation — albeit within rather limited constraints (dimension specifications of the Sonic Cruiser are yet to be publicly announced, but it will be closer in size to the 777 than 747).

Rather than building bigger aircraft, which ultimately cost far more to run and would mean pricier fares for passengers for the extra space the plane’s body afforded, Boeing is looking at maximising passenger seating space through clever seat design in the Sonic Cruiser, and looking at revamping sections in existing aircraft models to make room for other passenger pursuits.

The passenger of the future on the Sonic Cruiser — and perhaps even on existing aircraft with modified interiors — may well have the pleasure of sinking into pod-like seats that are curved so as to provide far more comfort and spinal support, even while sleeping, and minimise obtrusion of aisle space.

Certain current aircraft also show distinct possibilities for providing new passenger designated space. For example, the 777 has an area above the overhead luggage capsules over 6 feet in height, which, by and large, is unused. Some of these planes already have cabin crew resting stations kitted out with sleeping berths and chairs occupying small portions of the overhead space, but there is a distinct possibility that future passengers on even these planes will have access to sleeping berths and entertainment areas located within these sections.

Many question marks still surround the Sonic Cruiser: exactly what size will it be? How powerful? When will it be flying? And for which airline? Nonetheless, this much is clear: it will provide the means for faster travel, smoother travel, more direct travel, and it will benefit all three parties involved in the industry: the passenger, the airline and the airport. Airports will be less hectic and congested; airlines will have the flexibility to structure their operations for maximum efficiency, profitability and customer appeal; and the passenger of the future will reach his/her destination with ample time to spare.
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