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Return of supersonic jets could create sonic booms 'every five minutes,' study says

Key Points
  • A report published on Wednesday has warned that commercial supersonic aircraft could create sonic booms as often as once every five minutes in certain regions.
  • It also warned of significant impacts on the environment and public health.
  • The U.S. is reportedly pushing for a return to faster-than-sound travel.
Boom Technology

Parts of North America and Western Europe could experience sonic booms every five minutes if supersonic jets become commercialized, a new study said on Wednesday.

Published by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), the paper also warned that the aircraft could create severe environmental and health impacts by 2035.

Supersonic jets can travel faster than the speed of sound, significantly reducing flight times, although travel at such speeds has not been available since Concorde planes were retired in 2003. A side effect of traveling this quickly is sonic booms — the noise emitted when an object traveling through the air breaks the speed of sound barrier.

According to the ICCT, some start-ups are hoping to roll out as many as 2,000 commercial aircraft that will serve 500 cities by 2035. Such a scenario, the ICCT said, would introduce 5,000 flights per day to 160 airports worldwide.

The most heavily impacted countries would include Germany, Israel, and parts of the U.S. and Canada. Those regions would be exposed to between 150 and 250 sonic booms per day, or up to one boom every five minutes over a 16-hour flight day, according to the report.

Could supersonic transport be making a comeback?
Could supersonic transport be making a comeback?

Doubling noise pollution

Dubai International and London Heathrow airports could see in excess of 300 supersonic flight operations per day, according to the study. The report's authors said these flights could double the area around airports exposed to substantial noise pollution.

"Current supersonic sales targets, paired with ongoing efforts to lift overland flight bans, imply severe environmental consequences," said ICCT's Dan Rutherford, lead author of the study.

"Manufacturers should commit to meeting existing standards for new subsonic jets and promise to adopt low boom technologies before further developing their aircraft."

A 2016 study by the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority linked exposure to aircraft noise to cardiovascular problems, learning delay in children, obesity and sleep disturbance.

International clash

In July, Reuters reported that a U.S. push for relaxed global standards on aircraft noise was being met with resistance from European nations.

A U.S.-led revival of supersonic jets was reportedly facing delays as European states, including the U.K., France and Germany, held firm on refusing to pass new rules on noise needed for the aircraft to fly.

Despite uncertainty over regulation, the industry is moving closer to making commercial supersonic air travel a reality again.

Denver start-up Boom Technology is planning a test flight for its supersonic jet later this year. The company promises that the technology could halve flight times — for example, it says the plane could transport passengers from Washington, D.C. to London in just 3.5 hours. Flight times for that route are currently more than seven hours.

A spokesperson for Boom told CNBC via email that the firm's aircraft was "designed not to be any louder than today's commercial aircraft during takeoffs and landings," adding that flights would only reach supersonic speed over water.

The company already has partnerships with Chinese travel agency Ctrip and Japan Airlines.

In November, Lockheed Martin began production of its supersonic plane, which will be test piloted by NASA. The defense giant is working to produce an aircraft capable of reaching the speed of sound without breaking the sound barrier — thereby preventing sonic booms.