ORLANDO, Fla., May 13 (UPI) -- A Texas businessman's dream of building commercial supersonic jets could become reality with construction of a manufacturing plant in Florida after 18 years of planning, modifying plans and changing major partners.
Reno, Nev.-based Aerion Corp., backed by an undisclosed amount of investment from Boeing, plans to build a $300 million corporate headquarters and factory next to Orlando-Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, 40 miles south of Kennedy Space Center.
Aerion said it plans to build 12-passenger jets by 2023 and test them in 2024, although experts in supersonic aviation said that timetable might be difficult to meet because of the COVID-19 pandemic and delays that are frequent in any new aerospace venture.
Aerion said it wants to market its planned AS2 jet to charter companies, corporations and some individuals. The hook would be speeds of up to 990 mph -- or Mach 1.5 -- which is more than 50 percent faster than current long-range jets, Aerion said.
The firm also claimed it would ensure flights are carbon neutral by using biofuel in the jets and renewable energy in manufacturing while sponsoring the planting of 100 million trees around the globe to absorb carbon.
Location an advantage
A location in Melbourne along the Florida coast, near a large pool of aerospace professionals at NASA and defense contractor Harris Corp., attracted the company, said Matthew Clarke, Aerion's vice president of marketing and communications.
Such a location also would facilitate development, the company said.
"Being able to test over water for a supersonic aircraft will be enormously important," Clarke said. "We will not travel at supersonic speeds over land to avoid creating sonic booms."
Texas oil magnate and private equity financier Robert Bass founded Aerion in 2002, a year before the last Concorde jet flight, and the company developed concepts for a decade. Tom Vice, a former Northrop Grumman executive, is Aerion's CEO. He replaced Bass, 72, as chairman of the board in 2019.
Aerion had planned to begin testing of an earlier model of its jet -- the SBJ -- in 2019. Before any tests began, Aerion announced it would pursue a new model, the AS2, with an updated design that includes a larger cabin and greater range.
Aerion engaged Lockheed Martin in 2017 as a partner. Lockheed said in 2019 it only provided an assessment of the AS2. Aerion never disclosed the results of Lockheed's assessment, but it then announced in February 2019 that Boeing would become its new partner.
Partners with NASA
Aerion's work on new supersonic technology includes a partnership with NASA to test a method of reducing air friction and fuel consumption known as natural laminar flow, according to the space agency.
Florida Gov. Ron Desantis announced Aerion's move to Melbourne with much fanfare in late April, even as the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the aviation industry. The company pledges to bring 675 new jobs to Florida, and the state says those jobs would have an average salary of $105,000 per year.
Aerion said it can build the AS2 for about $120 million per 12-passenger jet. That compares to $30 million for a conventional, subsonic jet with that seating capacity, said Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at aerospace analyst firm Teal Group in Virginia.
Aboulafia said Aerion has impressive technology and leadership, but it remains to be seen if the company can produce what it promises and if it can sell the planes.
"The two big challenges for Aerion are to maintain their existing alliance to get the AS2 built in these uncertain times, and then convincing very high-end corporate customers to pay a higher price for more speed and less space," Aboulafia said.
Air pollution standards and fuel costs would create additional challenges, the analyst said. The firm also faces growing financial storm clouds for its major investors, including Boeing, he said -- because the aviation sector has been hard-hit economically by the pandemic.
Boeing took hit
Boeing also took a major economic hit after two fatal crashes of the 737 MAX, which was then grounded worldwide in March 2019 until the company implements fixes to its flight control system and pilot training.
Boeing suspended production of the aircraft in January as orders dissipated, but announced Friday it plans to resume building the plane this month.
The cost of Aerion's jet will limit its potential customer base, said Iain Boyd, an aerospace professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. But the company is betting on "enough people with very deep pockets to get a first-generation aircraft off the ground," he said.
Some wealthy businessmen might be willing to pay the additional cost if they see the faster travel time as a status symbol, Boyd said.
"The key challenge today in the commercial passenger business is to develop technology that allows supersonic aircraft to fly efficiently," Boyd said. "High fuel consumption leading to high seat prices was what ultimately doomed Concorde."