How Supersonic Travel Will Revive the Special Relationship

Boom Technology’s supersonic passenger airplane (Illustration:
New York to London in just a few hours.

With Brexit throwing Britain’s terms of trade with the rest of Europe into question, Theresa May has pledged to “renew the special relationship” with the United States through closer economic ties. Yet despite America’s size and importance to the world economy, there are reasons to be skeptical that trade alone can fill the gap. More than 4,000 miles separate the two nations, and long-distance trading relationships only ever grow so special.

Economists have a means of quantifying the effect of geographical distance on trade. Known as the “gravity model,” it shows that trade flows follow a strikingly simple empirical relationship: The farther apart two trading partners are, the less they tend to exchange — and much more than one would expect based on the cost of shipping alone. Theories for the relationship abound, from the role of culture and transportation networks, to the tighter diplomatic relationships neighboring countries tend to forge out of common interests. But whatever its ultimate origin, counting on transatlantic trade to offset the loss of trade from the EU requires the U.K. to find some way of defying gravity.

The return of commercial supersonic flight could be one gravity-defying possibility, helping bridge the Atlantic through speedy business travel. The Concorde, which retired in 2003 after 27 years of service, was beset by poor fuel economy and exorbitant ticket prices, earning its reputation as an engineering wonder but a massive commercial failure. This was hardly a surprise given its origins in a quite literal case of “design by committee.” Today, in contrast, a confluence of technological breakthroughs, from carbon-fiber airframes to better jet engines, mean the next generation of supersonic passenger jets are well under a decade away and driven by a bevy of private-sector players with every intention of making supersonic flight practical — and profitable.

At the front of the pack is the Colorado aerospace start-up Boom Technology. They are only a year away from testing their first demonstrator aircraft, and already five different airlines have placed more than 40 orders for the company’s first full scale, 55-seat passenger jet. Boom’s first plane is expected to begin flying in 2023 — the same year the U.K. is expected to fully leave the EU. Nipping at their heels are two other supersonic startup companies, Aerion and Spike, and a number of internal projects at major incumbents such as Lockheed, Gulfstream, and Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, the latter of which is reportedly only seven years away from testing their own 50-seat prototype.

Regardless of who wins the race, affordable supersonic flight will have major implications for generating new U.K. and U.S. export relationships. With a cruising speed 2.2 times the speed of sound, commercial supersonic transportation will cut the seven-hour journey from New York to London (and hundreds of other routes) by more than half, helping entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic break into established business networks and have the face-to-face meetings that build bilateral trust.

Work by American University professor Jennifer Poole shows that improvements in business travel lead to tangible increases in trade. According to Poole’s estimates, a 10 percent increase in business travel to the U.S. is associated with a 0.9 percent increase in the number of product varieties being exported and a 1.3 percent increase in export volume — an effect that is larger for high-skill information industries. Other research has found similar benefits from business travel on innovation and technology transfers.

The timing is ironic, as Britain originally proposed the joint Concorde project with France as a tactic to gain entry into the European Common Market.

Indeed, the predictions that the Internet would spell the death of distance got things exactly backwards. Location matters more than ever in the modern information economy, which has made it more lucrative to live — and interact face-to-face — within a cluster of smart people. Yet with affordable supersonic travel, it will be as fast to commute from New York to London by plane as it is to commute from New York to Washington, D.C., by train. The thickening of social networks that will result could make supersonic the saving grace for London’s knowledge-intensive business sector.

As the computer scientist Nick Szabo has noted, “the cost of transportation can have a radical nonlinear impact on the value of the trade networks it enables.” Access to sea-borne trade across the Atlantic was critical in England’s early economic supremacy, just as steam locomotion was necessary to the spread of the Industrial Revolution throughout the continent. More recently, when jet propulsion replaced propellers following the Second World War, causing passenger airfares to plummet, U.S. travel abroad rose by 700 percent.

Never underestimate the power of raw speed to spur economic activity. To top it all off, Congress and the Department of Transportation are currently considering legalizing supersonic flight overland thanks to technologies that minimize the sonic boom. If enacted, Britain’s supersonic relationship with the U.S. would then extend across North America to Silicon Valley and out the other end. A supersonic flight from London to Sydney, Australia, would be about ten hours faster going West than the current subsonic route going East.

It’s fitting that Britain, the nation that first conceived of the Concorde, is so well-placed to benefit from the supersonic renaissance. The timing is also ironic, as Britain originally proposed the joint Concorde project with France as a tactic to gain entry into the European Common Market. With the decision to exit the EU, supersonic now looks key to strengthening Britain’s relationship with the United States instead, thereby helping navigate the turbulence to come.


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