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Does Your Firm Need Its Own Supersonic Jet?


Illustration by Argus Photoland Ltd.

By STEPHEN SHORT

She's getting as long in the tooth as she is in the snout, but Concorde is still the only supermodel in the sky. Launched in 1976, the Anglo-French supersonic airliner remains the epitome of dash. The bullet plane once did New York to London in 2 hours, 52 minutes--65% quicker than your typical jumbo jet. Its speed, rarity (only 13 were built) and high ticket price mean the Concorde's 100 seats tend to be filled by the world's rich and famous. But it can't fly forever, and the industry is already hungry for the next generation of supersonic travel.

Fasten your seat belts: the next trend in supersonic travel is likely to be up close and personal. Building on the craze for corporate jets--more than 550 are expected to be sold worldwide this year--manufacturers are busily exploring how to create a practical and affordable small-scale model that can let executives fly privately in excess of the sound barrier.

France's aerospace heavyweight Dassault Aviation pointed to the future last year when it unveiled plans for the Falcon SST, a supersonic business jet. Though it may be another decade before the plane actually pokes its nose out of anyone's hangar, the announcement convinced the aviation industry that mini-SSTs are truly on their way. According to plans, the Falcon, built to accommodate eight passengers, will be able to fly farther than Concorde without refueling. And, thanks to noise-suppression technology, it won't generate the sonic boom that prevents the big bird from landing in cities like Tokyo. That's music to environmentalists' ears--and practical, too, since "quiet" supersonic aircraft can use existing corporate airport runways.

Dassault's arch-rival, Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. of the U.S., is also trying to get into the act. Gulfstream, which is in the process of being acquired by General Dynamics Corp., accounts for 60% of the long-range/ultra-long-range business-jet market. It has a backlog of orders through 2007 for more than 125 Gulfstream Vs and Gulfstream IV-SPs, together worth more than $4 billion. And it, too, wants to go supersonic. Gulfstream and aircraft designer Lockheed Martin Skunk Works are jointly engaged in a feasibility study on producing such a craft. Explains Gulfstream president Bill Boisture: "The new frontier is time."

The partners hope to get funding from NASA's HighSpeed Research program. They may well need it. One big stumbling block is finding the right engine. Gulfstream and Lockheed, like Dassault, are experimenting with either modifying an existing engine design or creating an entirely new one. Either way, the process will be expensive and could take more than five years.

Although private supersonic travel is some way off, potential producers are enrouraged by the success of Executive Jet Inc. The company, which currently manages 226 aircraft, is the world's largest operator of private business jets. Through its NetJets program, Executive Jet pioneered "fractional" aircraft ownership, in which two or more firms share a private plane. NetJets allows individuals or companies to buy as little as a one-eighth interest in a business jet aircraft, depending on the flight hours needed. Executive Jet, which was acquired by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway last year, currently has a backlog of 460 aircraft on order. Its client list includes individuals such as Tiger Woods and Pete Sampras and companies like General Electric and Texaco. The ever-effusive Buffett calls the arrangement "the premier provider of aviation solutions in the world."

Naturally, a plane of the sort Dassault and Gulfstream are dreaming up will carry a hefty price-tag--perhaps as much as $80 million, or roughly double the cost of a high-end conventional business jet. But that doesn't faze some potential customers. Executive Jet senior vice president Kevin Russell says his company could buy "anywhere between five and 50" supersonic jets when they become available. Until then, Concorde will remain the only supersonic show in the sky.




Daily

June 28, 1999

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Main Feature
Fasten your seat belts: the next trend in supersonic travel is likely to be up close and personal


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