Aerion is still hoping to convince an OEM partner to join it by the end of this year in its quest to build a supersonic business jet capable of sprinting from New York to London in just four hours. In the six months since the company began accepting orders for the sleek, $80 million twinjet, 40 would-be buyers have signed letters of intent backed by refundable deposits of $250,000. The question for Aerion now centers on whether the early interest in the airplane will be enough to persuade a major OEM to commit the billions of dollars needed for certification.
When Aerion was formed two-and-a-half years ago, its internal market research predicted a market for as many as 300 such jets over 10 years. “But that survey did not even include demand from countries such as India, China and Russia,” said Aerion vice chairman Brian Barents. “If anything, we have underestimated global demand.”
Barents also pointed to the $60 million target price for the Gulfstream G650 as evidence that an $80 million supersonic jet is an appropriate target price. The majority of the orders so far have come from wealthy individuals, as well as a few corporations, he said. “Most people assumed that because we started taking orders at the Dubai air show that all the buyers were coming from the Middle East, but the interest has really been spread globally,” he said.
Gulfstream and Dassault have expressed a desire to develop a supersonic business jet, but both companies say the timing for such a project is probably still many years in the future. Aerion’s goal is to secure a partner in the coming months and certify the airplane in 2014, a schedule that appears increasingly unlikely. It has inked an exclusive agreement with Pratt & Whitney for a variant of the JT8D-219 engine flat rated to 19,600 pounds of thrust and thinks it can line up additional suppliers quickly. If Aerion doesn’t find an OEM partner by the end of the year, the company will continue searching for one. “We stated that we wanted to find a partner by the end of 2008, but that was only an internal goal,” Barents said. “There’s no reason we wouldn’t continue looking for a partner beyond this year.”
While it is not clear whether Aerion’s suddenly bulging order book is starting to attract interest from OEMs, all of the major manufacturers are deeply involved in development programs for conventional business jets. Even if a manufacturer wanted to join Aerion, it might not be able to spare the resources that would be needed for such an ambitious project, especially with demand for conventional business jets at an all-time high right now.
Gulfstream, for one, appears to be an unlikely partner for Aerion. “We don’t think flying supersonic over water and subsonic or barely supersonic over land is the correct approach,” said Gulfstream engineering senior vice president Pres Henne at EBACE, “and we’ve left it at that with Aerion.” Gulfstream is testing a telescopic nose that would eliminate the boom of a supersonic jet, but says it isn’t close to launching a project.
Technical work is progressing on the Aerion design, which uses a natural laminar flow wing patented by the company and capable of a “sustained and efficient” cruise speed of Mach 1.6. The bulk of recent research has focused on reducing the jet’s noise signature by redesigning the engine nozzles. Engineers think they can find a solution that will eliminate the jet’s sonic boom below an altitude of 5,000 feet. Nevertheless, the jet will meet Stage 4/Chapter 4 noise requirements when flying subsonic, which it would be able to do efficiently, Barents said.
The Aerion project is backed by U.S. billionaire Robert Bass. Last November the company announced a marketing alliance with ExecuJet Aviation to promote the airplane outside the Americas, and then in March it signed an agreement with Aero Toy Store to sell the airplane in Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America. Aerion is handling sales of the jet to U.S. buyers.