The future of air travel is not about size, it’s about speed, according to Virgin founder Richard Branson.
Debate is raging as to whether the giant Airbus A380 superjumbo and Boeing 747 jumbo jet have a future, as their popularity wanes in the face of smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft such as the Boeing Dreamliner and Airbus A350.
But for Branson, these aircraft are in the slow lane; the next generation of aircraft will be supersonic, or beyond.
Speaking on board Virgin Australia’s inaugural flight from Melbourne to Hong Kong, Branson indicated the future of air travel, as far as he’s concerned, lies with sub-orbital, supersonic flight, and perhaps even orbital flight that could cut the travel time between London and Sydney to less than an hour.
Virgin is already working with Denver company Boom to develop a supersonic jet that would fly significantly faster than the only supersonic passenger service to fly so far, the Concorde, which ended its services in 2003.
Boom’s jet would cut the current 15-hour flying time between Los Angeles and Sydney by more than half.
The company says it has five airlines now signed up for the aircraft and it aims to not just be faster than the Concorde, but cheaper too.
Boom has stated that a business-class ticket from New York to London will cost $US5000 ($A6570), far less than the $US20,000 charged by Concorde.
“We’re helping at Virgin Galactic building the Boom spaceships,” Branson said. “They’ll be going suborbital, but they’ll still be going a lot faster than Concorde. And that’s a big stepping stone towards really fast travel, maybe, one day, orbital flights.
“If we can put people into orbit, they’ll be travelling at 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometres) an hour. Australia could be reached in about half an hour, maybe an hour with getting to the slot to land. It’s just the time at the airport that’s going to be a pain.”
But orbital flights have their drawbacks, and Branson admits that the discomfort of G-forces may mean there won’t be many customers for orbital flights.
Meanwhile, Branson revealed that his space travel company’s spaceships were rapidly approaching launch.
“We’re not meant to give dates, but I will. I think our spaceship will be in space by the end of the year. All the tests are going really well, we’re back on track. Next year I plan to go to space.”
He said Virgin Galactic could be flying paying passengers into space by the second half of next year.
The Virgin Galactic program suffered a major blow in 2014 when a test flight crashed in the Mojave desert, killing a pilot.
Branson admits it has been a difficult road for the fledgling company, which now has four spaceships under development.
“It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s been 12 hard years to get this far. But it is rocket science. And rocket science is hard.”
Despite other entrepreneurs also getting into space travel, such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk, Branson believes the market will be big enough for the industry to be viable.
“So as long as we can be sure it’s safe and can try to make it more affordable, as fast as we build spaceships, they’ll be full up. I’m not worried about that.”
The launch of the space travel company would make a fitting climax to a movie based on Branson’s life.
He had been approached by people wanting to option his 1998 autobiography, Losing My Virginity, he said, but had turned them down.
“I’ve turned them down on the basis that … it’s better to wait until I’m no longer around. I may not like it. I may not like the guy they choose [to play me], they may not be good looking enough!”