Here’s a quick note to United Airlines.
You know that deal you recently announced with Boom Supersonic that has you placing options to purchase 15 Overture aircraft, the still-to-be-built supersonic transport planes?
If United, or any of Boom’s aeronautical engineers, have an institutional memory, they’ll recall that the first-generation Concorde SST died, in part, because of the ferocious opposition from those in the Five Towns living beneath final approach to John F. Kennedy International Airport. That lesson needs to be heard in Tokyo, because Japan Airlines has secured 20 options for Overture, and Virgin Atlantic has announced that it is studying a supersonic airliner of its own.
Let’s be clear. If your airliner can’t fly into Kennedy, you aren’t flying anywhere. Regardless of what technology you apply, whether it's electric-powered engines or supersonic delta wings, the economics of any airliner depend on landing rights at JFK. The surrounding communities are seasoned veterans of the jet noise war, and they know how to respond effectively based on their experiences with the delta-winged Concorde SST.
In addition to a loud “double bang” sonic wave that assaulted people on the ground whenever the Concorde exceeded the speed of sound, its engines were considerably louder than those powering 747s and DC-10s of that era. Those jumbo jets arrive over the Five Towns far more slowly and far more quietly than the SST.
The latest generation of aviation companies proposing to build a 21st-century SST has the advantage of working with research, technology, composite materials and supercomputers that were unavailable to Concorde designers back in the 1960s. Current plans suggest a design that incorporates an unusually long nose meant to contour a shock wave, wings designed to bounce a sonic boom up into the air and engines cloaked, in part, by twin vertical tails. Airlines also have a better appreciation of the economics of supersonic travel in an era of deregulation, when they have a far tougher and more competitive business model than the two European airlines that flew the Concorde across the Atlantic.
Engineers say they fully appreciate that there is a point at which decibel readings for supersonic flight go off the chart and into the realm of community and Congressional opposition. They believe their prototype SST will offer a muted “thump” when it needs to fly over land in excess of Mach 1. While there has been an effort since 2018 to restart American SST research, Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration have yet to set new SST noise standards, which means, for the moment, that the industry is chasing a moving and subjective regulation.
As fabrication of SST aircraft moves forward, the industry should consider simultaneously launching a community outreach and educational program focusing on what their SST will and will not do that would begin to engage Long Islanders. They should share their science, for example, with village mayors and civic leaders, particularly those in the Five Towns; host a community open house at Hempstead Town Hall; display their design concepts at the Lawrence High School science fair; host an informational briefing for Nassau County elected officials at the Cradle of Aviation; create a web site that details the thousands of hours of wind tunnel testing, computer modeling and concept designs; coordinate efforts with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs JFK; and offer a virtual online tour of the engineering centers where their first SST is being designed.
Boom Supersonic and its competitors, such as Lockheed Martin, need to appreciate that it is no longer sufficient to be the most innovative kid in the air. New technology, like new public infrastructure, now comes with a mandatory strategy to engage those who will be most impacted by it.
But a neighborhood outreach program will not address the issue facing Cedarhurst, Lawrence, Inwood, and other communities on the South Shore that daily absorb the sights and sounds of intense air traffic. We know Long Island isn’t the center of the commercial aviation universe, but persuading New Yorkers living near JFK that a new and vastly improved SST will not harm their quality of life will be essential to the long-term viability of an SST that few of us will ever fly.
Ronald J. Rosenberg has been an attorney for 42 years, concentrating in commercial litigation and transactions, and real estate, municipal, zoning and land use law. He is currently with the law firm he founded in 1999, Rosenberg Calica & Birney, in Garden City.