Boeing's Planned Sonic Cruiser Is Buzz of Aerospace Industry
The Wall Street Journal 02/27/02
author: J. Lynn Lunsford
SEATTLE -- Boeing Co. says its paper airplane will still fly.
Eleven months ago the world's largest airplane maker announced it was abandoning the race to build a supersize jetliner, betting instead that the future of air travel would rest in a sleek machine with swept-back wings and horizontal fins located at its front. Today, the so-called Sonic Cruiser remains in the drafting stage, with key questions about its viability as yet unanswered.
Still, the idea of 250 passengers hopping onto a futuristic jetliner and zipping halfway around the world at just below the speed of sound continues to generate buzz in the aerospace community despite the aviation crisis triggered by the events of Sept. 11.
With little to show besides a sleek six-foot model that sits in the lobby of the company's commercial-airplanes headquarters near Seattle and a raft of artist's renderings, suppliers and potential customers remain willing to clamber aboard. Says one supplier, "The Sonic Cruiser isn't just an airplane, it is a religion that has crept into everything that Boeing is doing."
Boeing , Chicago, unveiled the Sonic Cruiser far earlier in its development than it originally had planned because it wanted to divert attention away from the early success that European rival Airbus was having in securing orders for its 555-passenger A380. While the plan worked, it also focused an enormous amount of attention on the program while engineers were still trying to solve critical technical issues that could make or break it. People familiar with the Sonic Cruiser's development say the most difficult obstacle will be to keep the airplane's operating costs low, either through weight savings, ease of maintenance or fuel efficiency.
Boeing engineers have been looking at versions of the Sonic Cruiser that could cruise at speeds of between 1.2 and 1.4 times the speed of sound, but such a plane's operating costs and complicated engines would probably prompt airlines to reject it.
"Right now, it looks like the sweet spot of going faster is where we thought it would be, which is just below the speed of sound," says Walt Gillette, a longtime Boeing airplane designer who heads the Sonic Cruiser development team.
Although major airlines such as AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines have showed enthusiasm for the airplane and are involved in detailed development discussions with Boeing , they aren't convinced Boeing can deliver on its key promise: that the airplane will provide a 15% increase in speed while operating at the same relative cost as today's most efficient jets. "We're not doubting that Boeing can do it, but there are a lot of issues to be worked out," says American spokesman John Hotard.
The carriers say the Sonic Cruiser's chief advantage over existing airplanes would be realized primarily on coast-to-coast and transoceanic routes. Currently, most passenger jets in service to Europe and Asia can make only one round-trip a day. The airlines say if the Sonic Cruiser allows them to get an extra "turn" out of a plane, that would immediately make it worth the investment.
Boeing's chief competitor, by contrast, believes the best way to lower operating costs on long-haul flights will be by carrying more passengers in each airplane. The A380 mega-jet by Airbus is expected to enter service in 2006.
Aviation experts say it is likely that both manufacturers could succeed. And the major aerospace suppliers are doing their best to contribute to both airplanes, by providing technological advances they otherwise might have kept sheltered for competitive reasons.
Boeing commercial-airplanes president Alan Mulally says the company must sharply improve its manufacturing techniques and lower its production costs if the Sonic Cruiser is to succeed. The company's Phantom Works division has been studying methods to form lightweight composites so they could eliminate the need for the traditional skeleton of ribs and horizontal stringers that give strength to today's airplanes.
Boeing also hopes with its suppliers it can find new ways to build airplanes that assemble in sections, more like high-tech plastic models than today's comparatively inefficient method of building an airplane from what can be a million separate parts. "This will be the step that is like going from propeller-driven airplanes to jets," Mr. Mulally said in an interview.
The aerospace suppliers say they can't afford to miss out on the Sonic Cruiser program, and they point to United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney jet-engine division as a prime example to avoid. Pratt missed a huge bet about 20 years ago when its executives chose not to compete for a new engine for the Boeing 737, which went on to become the company's most popular seller.
This time, Pratt & Whitney is preparing to ante up the estimated $1 billion it will take to develop an engine for the Sonic Cruiser. "We think the airplane has the potential to be hugely popular and we want our engine on it," says Robert Leduc, president of Pratt's large commercial-engine division.