British people face pollution and hundreds of noise violations from supersonic aircraft, experts warn

'What is the economic benefit of flying very wealthy people around at a faster speed?'

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 30 January 2019 07:09
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Boom Supersonic workshop houses prototype aircraft planned to fly more than twice the speed of sound

The rise of supersonic planes could see Heathrow alone hosting more than 300 extra flights every day that exceed noise pollution limits and compromise efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

While commercial aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier have fallen out of fashion since the demise of Concorde, a new generation of US companies is driving their resurgence.

Supported by the Trump administration and wealthy backers, these plans have profound consequences for international efforts to tackle climate change and local opposition to noise pollution.

Three US-based startups are currently working on new commercial supersonic aircraft, with one of them, Boom Supersonic, aiming to sell up to 2,000 planes serving 500 routes.

A new report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) assessed the effects of putting such a plan into action by 2035, envisioning Heathrow as a hub of supersonic transport.

It predicted such an outcome would leave some regions exposed to around 200 sonic booms every day as craft break the sound barrier, and consume a fifth of aviation’s carbon budget.

One analysis estimated supersonic planes would produce between five and seven times as much CO2 per passenger compared with a conventional aircraft.

“If you fly faster and if you fly higher, you have a worse climate impact,” said Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at NGO coalition Transport & Environment.

While these planes are still under development, their creators say the first flights will take off within six years, and meanwhile the political stage is being set for their expansion.

Last year Donald Trump signed a bill lifting a ban on supersonic jets flying over US soil, and generally the American position has been one of weaker pollution standards.

The EU, meanwhile, is urging caution, and as powers assemble at the International Civil Aviation Organisation meeting in February this is likely to be source of tension.

In the UK, plans to expand Heathrow airport have already met strong resistance from campaigners concerned about pollution and the impact on Britain’s greenhouse gas targets.

Robert Barnstone from local group the No Third Runway Coalition said the fact that supersonic flights on this scale were being considered made a mockery of the aviation industry’s green credentials.

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However, he also questioned the likelihood of these lofty ambitions getting off the ground considering their capacity to breach noise limits.

“It would be a brave Heathrow to try and sell the benefits of 300 extra noisy flights a day ... to communities already severely impacted by noise and air pollution,” he said.

Dismissing the endeavour as little more than a “vanity project”, Mr Murphy questioned the advantages of such jets considering the conditions already provided by existing planes.

“What is the economic benefit of flying very wealthy people around at a faster speed?” he asked

However, Boom Supersonic CEO Blake Scholl has previously been adamant that its aircraft will not be the reserve of the ultra-wealthy.

A spokesperson for the Denver-based firm said the company planned to pay to offset its CO2 emissions, and would keep supersonic flights over water and away from people.

Opponents of supersonic aviation say offsetting is being used by the industry to justify growth instead of a transition to greener technologies as it has pledged to do.

The authors of the ICCT report said authorities must ensure robust standards are in place to manage the noise and climate impacts of supersonic flights, and urged manufacturers to commit to those standards.

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