A year after unveiling its revolutionary Sonic Cruiser passenger jet, the American aerospace company Boeing is once again trying to convince the world the unusual-looking craft is the future of commercial aviation. Capable of cruising twenty percent faster than today's jets, the sleek new plane promises to cut hours off long-distance flights - making the world even smaller for the traveling public.
Boeing's European rival, Airbus, is also planning a new jet, following a more traditional aircraft design. By choosing a radical new shape for its plane, the company is preparing to battle strong headwinds.
Since the first successful jet airliner was introduced a half-century ago, engineers haven't strayed too far from conventional design - wings across the middle, tail in the back. But the company that made that jet believes a different approach to design will usher in the next era of airline travel.
"It's definitely a paradigm change," said Tom Cogan, Chief Project Engineer for Boeing's Sonic Cruiser Program. He said the craft's unusual design forced Boeing to introduce it to the public much earlier in the development process than it normally would for a new plane.
"Because it was so radically different," he said, "we felt it was important to unveil it and talk about it openly and start getting the feedback. We needed to show it to our customers, we needed to show it to the public to really validate the concept and make sure there was value in having a product that flew faster and it's really hard to do that if you're keeping it a secret."
The Sonic Cruiser looks like nothing on a runway today. It has small wings called canards, mounted just behind the cockpit. The canard is nothing new. In fact, it was used by the Wright brothers on their first airplane.
These stubby wings provide horizonal stability, a function similar to the standard tail, which is missing on the Sonic Cruiser. Instead of long slender wings stretching out from its sides, Boeing's design has a delta wing, which forms a large triangle, similar to the Concorde, starting about half way back on the fuselage. Two small vertical fins rise from the engines which sit at the very back of the plane.
But the unusual look shouldn't affect the plane's appeal to the flying public, according to Burt Rutan. The veteran aeronautical engineer has developed numerous unconventional aircraft, most notably the Voyager which flew around the world in 1986 on a single tank of gas. He says the success of a new design depends not on its look, but on more fundamental, economic reasons. Mr. Rutan said, "I don't believe that configuration in itself is a primary driver or even is a negative driver on that. The airplanes that have been unsuccessful are the ones that haven't had the value to the customer in terms of its performance at its cost."
And until recently, the ability to gain extra speed at a reasonable cost didn't exist. Boeing's Tom Cogan says advancements in computing power allow better calculations of airflow around the plane. This allows the Sonic Cruiser to fly 20 percent faster than today's airliners with the same amount of fuel. Mr. Cogan said, "[The Sonic Cruiser is] very comparable in fuel burn to today's modern commercial jets that we're producing like the 767 and the 777, but it will be able to fly faster. So that's what the technology that's available to us allows us to do, get that additional speed and still have an airplane that operates as today's airplanes."
Boeing officials say flying smaller, faster airliners in what's called a 'point-to-point system' is the future of travel. Rival plane maker Airbus is going a different direction. Its new Super Jumbo will rely on the 'hub and spoke system' in which passengers fly in large airplanes to large airports, then transfer to connecting flights on smaller planes for the final legs.
Aviation analyst Peter Jacobs said it's exciting to see the companies take such different paths. He says if Boeing can convince airlines that passengers will pay a small premium for a faster flight, the Sonic Cruiser could make it. Mr. Jacobs said, "It's certainly not a given or a sure thing. There are some more hurdles that Boeing needs to get over and it's not even sure if they're going to develop the Sonic Cruiser. They're looking at it, they're working on it, they have several hundred people working on it, but it's going to be a couple of years before they know if it will actually fly."
Boeing officials say they're going to design their next airliner to fit the marketplace, and they believe the market wants speed. But in the midst of the airlines' worst downturn ever, many in the industry are skeptical the radical new Sonic Cruiser will ever make it off the ground.