End the Supersonic Ban on National Aviation Day

National Aviation Day, which takes place August 19, commemorates Orville Wright’s birthday and accomplishments related to flight. Technology has reduced travel times and opened the skies. But prohibitions on overland supersonic flight are stifling further innovations.

As policymakers consider ways to improve the country’s infrastructure, repealing this outdated ban could dramatically lower travel times and generate substantial economic benefits, without requiring significant public expenditures.

Now it takes almost 5.5 hours to get from New York to Los Angeles, about the same amount of time it takes to get from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. Faster supersonic flights could reduce travel time to 2.5 hours.  This would encourage both business travel and tourism.

Since 1973, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has prohibited overland supersonic flight, mainly due to noise disturbances resulting from sonic booms created when airplanes reached the speed of sound. As a recent report from the Mercatus Center details, technological developments have significantly reduced noise since the ban was enacted. The use of stronger, more lightweight materials and the proliferation of computer simulations have allowed producers to alter the shape of aircraft to minimize the intensity of sonic booms.  

The Concorde, the supersonic passenger jet in operation when the ban was being considered, generated a sonic boom of about 135 decibels when it reached land, louder than being in the front row of a concert. It is not hard to see that sonic booms at this level would have been disruptive and burdensome for people living below the flight paths of overland supersonic jets. But now sonic booms generate only 79 decibels, about the same as an alarm clock.

Unfortunately, current rules are based on speed, as related to Mach 1, rather than noise generated from the sonic boom. Supersonic flights would still run afoul of that ban, even with the substantial reductions in noise generation.

These declines in decibel levels have occurred despite the FAA’s prohibition, which deters companies from investing in research and development related to supersonic flight. Without the potential for overland flights, the potential market for companies which would otherwise be interested in improving existing technologies is severely constrained. Even with these restrictions, major companies and smaller startups alike have announced their plans to develop supersonic commercial jets in the near future. The FAA ban is one of the major obstacles standing in their way.

Fortunately, there could be some momentum behind calls for a re-evaluation of the current ban. The Lee-Gardner Amendment included in the Senate version of the FAA reauthorization bill directs the FAA administrator to review current regulations and policies, and submit a report evaluating advances in supersonic flight that has a bearing on the noise issue. The administrator would also be directed to submit recommendations for the laws that would need to be amended to end the ban on overland supersonic flight. Moving from a rule based on the speed of the aircraft to one related to the resulting noise would encourage more testing and innovation while maintaining the core concern about noise externalities.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation advanced the bill on June 29th. There is corresponding legislation in the House, and it is not certain that the supersonic amendment will be included in the final version. As people around the country look back at the wonders of flight on National Aviation Day, ending the overland supersonic band could lead to the next major breakthrough. 

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on twitter @CharlesHHughes. 

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