Why Aren’t Planes Getting Faster?
We can cross oceans in less than a day, whole countries over the course of an afternoon, but it seems like as far as air travel goes, we’ve hit a stand-still. Why is that? why isn’t the speed of air travel getting faster, like it was decades ago?
You heard that right – while we might not be going as fast now, there were supersonic airliners in the past. In fact, supersonic air travel has been around since 1968, with the Tupolev Tu-144, and in 1969 with the Concorde. The Tupolev Tu-144 was known to reach speeds of up to 1,510 mph, while the Concorde could go as fast as 1,354 mph. These speeds are more than double what our commercial airliners are currently capable of. The problem was these fast plane designs were deemed inefficient and too expensive to continue running as intended.
Currently, passenger aircraft are capable of flying at about 85% the speed of sound, which is around 600 mph. This is an insane speed if you really think about it. You would have to break the sound barrier to go much faster than this. This would fundamentally change the whole airline system’s behavior – demanding updated designs, and much more fuel. While we had designs that could go this in the past, they wouldn’t work now. The designs would have to be reworked to give more efficiency if they were going to replace modern aircraft.
For example, air moves differently over the different parts of the plane. An aircraft could be going around 95% of the speed of sound, but some of the surfaces would be experiencing trans-sonic speeds. The result would be loud noises, dragging, and could be potentially quite damaging. To avoid some of these problems, the whole plane would have to be going above the speed of sound, meaning much higher engineering and overall costs. With the cost of fuel being higher than it ever was during the Tupolev Tu or the Concorde’s lifespans, we can only imagine the high cost of running them today. Airplanes burn more fuel at higher speeds, making the process extremely costly. It puts more stress on the engines and fuselage, which in turn causes much higher rates of wear.
Another issue they might face would be the sonic boom. People experiencing a sonic boom have described it as a loud crack or explosion. It’s consistent as long as the sound barrier is broken, which means this “boom” will follow the flight for as long as it continues. This is one of the many reasons the Concorde mainly flew transatlantic flights, as people were less likely to be bothered by the noise over the ocean.
As it stands, air travel has been trying for a long time to be less expensive, not necessarily faster. A round trip from New York to London on the Concorde cost around $13,000 per passenger. This would make it a luxury and not for the general traveling public. They would only sell these tickets to the uber-elite, making this not a viable business model for most airlines. There were also fewer flights available compared to the schedules of standard aircraft. Depending on flight schedules, someone who needed to get somewhere as soon as possible still might be better off going on a standard 747.
In short, we don’t fly faster now because there’s no reason to. There’s a small market for the high-priced tickets, and people would be waiting for fewer planes. This would cause a bottleneck, effectively negating any time a passenger might save by flying in the faster planes. Planes would need a new design, more fuel, and likely wouldn’t provide a calm or quiet flight for anyone involved, for as long as they’re breaking the sound barrier, passengers and people below would be subjected to the “sonic boom” it causes.
Might we see planes, and other forms of travel, moving faster and more efficiently in the future? Let us know your predictions down below! With talks around high-speed trains and other forms of transportation, we might see considerable changes in the coming years – but for now, slow and steady has won the race.
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