Airlines are already interested in the innovative jet that combines comfort with speed, writes David Parsley
Taking off: Boeing's plane would fly higher and faster, cutting journey times by about 20%
Boeing's sonic cruiser sounds death knell for Concorde
Airlines queue up to buy sonic jet
IT'S typical. You wait 30 years for a new aeronautical innovation and then two come along at once.
First, Airbus launched its superjumbo to carry 550 passengers in spacious luxury. And while Boeing was working on a rival plane, others at the Seattle company were designing the most innovative aircraft since Concorde.
Some believe that Boeing's sonic cruiser, as its sleek flying machine has become known, is a sign of weakness in the battle against the Airbus A380 but most leading airlines have welcomed the plane.
For two years the talk in the industry has been how Boeing would counter Airbus's super-jumbo. Boeing boffins attempted to stretch their venerable 747 to compete with the A380 but the company's salesmen failed to sell the idea to customers. So, last summer, while keeping up the pretence that Boeing was serious about the stretched 747, the boffins turned their attention to something sexier - an almost supersonic liner.
Buyers are already queuing up. The Sunday Times spoke to seven leading airlines to gauge opinion on the jet, which will cruise at Mach 0.95, just under the speed of sound. It will cut up to two hours off the flying time between London and New York.
The airlines are clearly excited by the Boeing plan. While British Airways said it would "wait and see", Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, United and Continental, are more than interested. They have already made inquiries.
Emirates, the launch customer for the A380 (it ordered seven in a £980m deal) is renowned for its willingness to buy new designs. It may also place the first orders for the sonic cruiser.
The group says: "We are very interested in the development of this aircraft. We are in at an early stage so we can be fully involved in its evolution. We will use it to overcome a great many route problems and fly direct to the Americas. We need to ensure the designs allow for good cargo capability as well as a full range of passenger facilities."
Another Emirates executive went further. He expects Emirates to order seven of the planes within weeks.
They are not due into service for between five and 10 years and are expected to cost about £200m, but Boeing must be pleased with such expressions of interest from the airlines.
One executive says: "We would not launch a plane or put all the funds into developing such a big project without knowing there was firm interest from our customers. We are already talking to a number of them about how we should design the plane. While it could take 10 years to develop I think we will see the sonic cruiser long before that."
The craft will not only fly near the speed of sound and have a range of 9,000 miles, it will cruise at about 45,000 ft, far higher than other commercial jets. Its speed would reduce typical journey times by 20%.
The plane will offer the passenger capacity of the popular Boeing 777, about 300 seats, with a speed beaten only by Concorde, which is still grounded. It will also provide unparalleled range. The sonic cruiser will be able to fly from London to America's West Coast or the Far East faster than any other plane.
Don Carty, head of American Airlines, shares Emirates' enthusiasm for the project. If the price is right, Carty will race Emirates to be the first carrier to fly the jet.
He says that Boeing's top brass should "get busy talking to other airlines about it, but they ought to be sure that those discussions carry the understanding that American gets the first three years of deliveries. That's how enthusiastic we are about it.
"This is a very, very significant development. It could radically change our business."
Continental has also confirmed that is has a strong interest in the project. The group says: "We are very impressed with Boeing's sonic cruiser, which promises to revolutionise passenger air travel just like the 707 did. In our industry, time is money both for the customer and the airline and this aircraft will benefit both groups."
Airbus is not worried by Boeing's apparent success at such an early stage in a project. Apart from wishing it had thought of the plane first, the European consortium, in which BAE Systems has a 25% stake, will not be affected. All those airlines such as Emirates, Singapore, Qantas, Virgin and Air France that have ordered the A380 will not be cancelling in favour of Boeing's new star.
Emirates says: "These two planes offer us two different solutions to overcrowding in the skies and at airports."
To emphasise the point, Emirates is close to spending another £450m on an order for three more A380s, taking its total to 10.
This new era in air travel inevitably signals the start of a race to power Boeing's jet.
The Sunday Times has learnt that General Electric and Pratt & Whitney have joined forces to compete with Rolls-Royce on the engines for the sonic cruiser. Those close to Rolls suggest it has the upper hand with its knowledge of Concorde's engines. One Rolls expert even suggests the group may take Boeing's jet supersonic with an engine that produces no sonic boom - an environmental problem that has dogged Concorde throughout its 30 years of service.
BA's lack of commitment to the project may most easily be explained by the fact that Boeing's new jet will become a threat to Concorde.
While the British carrier still insists Concorde will fly again despite several delays getting it back into the air, there has to be a huge question mark over whether a plane designed almost 50 years ago will still be what passengers want in five years' time when there is a reasonable, albeit slightly slower, alternative. This is especially true if Rolls comes up with that solution to the sonic boom and sends Boeing's jet beyond the speed of sound.
One leading analyst says: "Concorde could only survive with that competition as a novelty. Actually it's not far from a novelty already."
Unsurprisingly, BA believes Concorde's future is sound. Before last summer's tragedy in France the aircraft had been cleared to fly for another 25 years.
These are exciting times for aircraft buffs. Two years ago the idea of plane such as the A380 or the sonic cruiser becoming a reality was almost laughable.
The world has moved on rather quickly and the industry believes that these jets are the best things that could have happened
ORDERS WITHIN *WEEKS*...HOLY CRAP! They must be much further along than the have let on! And if Rolls can indeed solve the sonic boom issue, this new, true innovation becomes revolutionary! Also, the BWB is still under development...800 pax at supersonic speeds?? Goodbye A380! The nay-sayers at Airbus had better take this a bit more seriously now.
Southside Irish...our two teams are the White Sox and whoever plays the Cubs!