How Sonic Cruisers Will Work

By: Kevin Bonsor
The Sonic Cruiser will shave one hour for every 3,000 miles flown.
Photo courtesy Boeing

Getting from, say, New York to Sydney, Australia, is not a point-to-point, uninterrupted airplane ride. If you want to take that kind of flight, you're going to have to stop at least once. There are many international and even shorter flights that require you to be herded through hubs and make one or more stops before arriving at your destination.

All of that is about to change. In March 2001, Boeing released details of a new, delta-winged airplane, dubbed the Sonic Cruiser. This near-supersonic aircraft may be able to fly faster over extended ranges and allow passengers to spend less time in the air and at airports. Only the Concorde is faster than this new plane; but even the Concorde won't match the Sonic Cruiser's range.


Not a lot is known about this new aircraft, because Boeing is offering few details. In this article, you will learn why Boeing is planning to spend $10 billion on this new concept, how it will save you time and how it will get you to farther destinations than any other commercial aircraft.

Creating a New Look

Boeing is using new design elements, such as delta wings and canards, on the Sonic Cruiser.
Photo courtesy Boeing

While Boeing's major rival, Airbus, focuses on the 555-passenger A380 jumbo jet, Boeing is turning its attention to a smaller aircraft that will carry between 100 and 300 passengers and is more suited for non-stop, point-to-point service. The A380 is a behemoth of an aircraft that will be ready around 2006. It is designed to deal with the increased traffic to the high-traffic hub airports rather than point-to-point flights.

Boeing consulted several major airlines that buy aircraft from Boeing and asked them what they wanted in a new airliner. Alan Mulally, Boeing Commercial Airplane president and CEO, said that most of them asked for an aircraft that could fly faster and higher over long ranges.


The result is the Sonic Cruiser. Boeing unveiled a one-fortieth-scale, 6-foot (1.8-m) model of the concept at the 2001 Paris Air Show. The aircraft will be the first major design change to commercial aircraft in decades. Here are the major design features of the Sonic Cruiser:

  • Double delta wings - Delta wings are placed farther back on the plane than conventional wings. The Concorde has delta wings.
  • Canards - These are the smaller, wing-like structures just behind the nose of the aircraft. Canards will give the plane more horizontal stability at high speeds.
  • Aft-mounted engines - Reminiscent of the Blackbird SR-71 military aircraft, the engines are blended into the body of the wing. You will learn more about the Sonic Cruiser's engine in the next section.

Few details of the planes specific dimensions have been released, because Boeing engineers are likely to make more adjustments before moving beyond the drawing board. Boeing officials plan to hold additional meetings with airlines to determine the ideal size of the aircraft. The plane is expected to be ready for takeoff sometime between 2006 and 2008.


Flying at Near-Supersonic Speeds

One of the many unique features of the Sonic Cruiser is the placement of the twin engines. The plane's engine housing will be blended into the rear of the aircraft. This is in stark contrast to the under-the-wing engine configuration of most commercial airliners.

To push the Sonic Cruiser to 0.95 Mach and possibly faster, Boeing will initially install two 777-class engines in the Sonic Cruiser. (Mach is the speed of sound, or about 740 mph/1,190 kph). However, Boeing is not being specific about what type of 777 engines it will use. One example of such an engine is the Pratt & Whitney 4098, which generates 98,000 pounds (44,452 kg) of thrust. The Sonic Cruiser will probably be slightly smaller than a 777 aircraft, which seats 305 to 394 passengers. The lightened load, in addition to the plane's design, will allow it to travel at near-supersonic speeds.


The use of 777-class engines is likely a temporary fix until one of three major aircraft-engine makers -- Rolls Royce, General Electric or Pratt & Whitney - - develops an engine specific to the Sonic Cruiser's needs and configuration.

Traveling at 0.95 Mach, the Sonic Cruiser will be the second fastest commercial aircraft in the world, and 15 percent faster than most commercial aircraft. Only the Concorde, which flies faster than Mach 2, will be faster than the Cruiser. Boeing estimates that the Sonic Cruiser will shave one hour off of every 3,000 miles (4,828 km) traveled. The increased speed will get passengers to their destinations 20 percent faster.

Speed doesn't come cheap. While the Sonic Cruiser saves time, it uses significantly more fuel to do it. It's estimated that the Sonic Cruiser will burn anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent more fuel than conventional aircraft. Boeing believes the added fuel cost will not be felt by the airlines. Boeing officials say that the operating costs for the aircraft will be equal to those of any other aircraft made around the same time.


Almost Anywhere Non-stop

The whole point of flying is to get from one place to another quickly. But sometimes, air travel can get slowed by the numerous stops between destinations and the time spent waiting for the next flight. The Sonic Cruiser may be able to reduce those types of delays not only by travelling faster, but also by eliminating the need for a refueling stop.

Boeing said that the Sonic Cruiser could eventually connect cities thousands of miles apart via non-stop fights. If it fulfills its promise, the aircraft could have a range of about 9,000 nautical miles (16,668 km). Non-stop flights from Los Angeles to Singapore would be possible. The longer distances are achieved through using 777-class engines on a smaller aircraft, the new delta wings and increased fuel capacity.


Boeing has even suggested a potential range of 10,000 nautical miles (18,520 km) in later versions of the aircraft. If that were possible, you could get on a plane in New York and stay airborne until you arrived in Sydney, Australia. The trip, which takes about 21 hours today, would be reduced to 18 hours, and the need for a layover would be eliminated entirely.

One reason for developing the Sonic Cruiser is that it could help solve overcrowding in the skies by providing fast, point-to-point travel and avoiding the major hub airports. Craig Martin, a spokesperson for Boeing, said that Boeing envisions the air-travel industry becoming increasingly fragmented, with an increased demand for non-stop routes between smaller cities. The Sonic Cruiser will give airlines the ability to fulfill that demand.

While the Sonic Cruiser is expected to offer fast air travel, second only to the Concorde, passengers won't have to pay Concorde prices. The price of a transatlantic Concorde ticket is more than $5,000 and is based somewhat on the maintenance costs of the plane, but more so on the prestige of flying on it. The Sonic Cruiser would be a full-scale production plane and equivalent in cost to any conventional airplane. British Airways is even taking a look at the Sonic Cruiser, but hasn't committed to any plans to replace the recently beleaguered Concorde.

The Sonic Cruiser has received a lot of attention from the media and has created quite a buzz in the airline industry. Boeing has even said that it may starting taking orders for the aircraft in 2002. Yet, while the Sonic Cruiser opens up new possibilities for air travel, it is still just one concept on Boeing's drawing board. Only time will tell if this concept will fly.