The Boeing Sonic Cruiser – The 787 Alternative Which Got Cut

When Boeing decided to wrap up production of the Boeing 757 and 767, they had a rather ambitious idea. A giant aircraft that would fly 20% faster than a normal jet airliner, but still have all the advantages of size and noise planes of the day enjoyed. It was called the Boeing Sonic Cruiser.

Sonic Cruiser
The Boeing Sonic Cruiser. Photo: Wikimedia / Simple Flying

What was the Boeing Sonic Cruiser?

Back at the turn of the millennium, Boeing was scrambling. Their popular line of Boeing 747s and 767s were starting to slow down in sales, and rival Airbus had just announced a truly ambitious and forward-thinking design… the A380.

Boeing needed a win; a new aircraft that was clever, high-tech and would reassert Boeing as having no equal in the aerospace industry. Boeing looked at the airline industry and saw two clear trends.

The first was the evolution of a true worldwide hub and spoke model airline (like Emirates), with huge A380-like aircraft shuttling passengers between different hubs before traveling onward on smaller aircraft (Canberra – Sydney – Dubai – London – Manchester for example)

The second model was point to point travel. Instead of traveling between hubs, why not fly directly to your intended destination on a smaller and faster plane (such as Boston to Manchester)?

Boeing saw the latter as the way of the future, and developed an aircraft that could quickly beat any other aircraft (apart from the Concorde, which at the time was not cost effective). Thus the Sonic Cruiser was born.

“As well as wanting more direct flights, passengers have demonstrated a preference for flights that take less time and airplane configurations that enhance comfort. It’s just common sense: people want to go where they want to go, when they want to go, how they want to go. Boeing’s answer to the demand for faster flights, more direct flights, and increased comfort is the Sonic Cruiser.” – Peter Rumsey, Director of New Airplane Product Development, Ingenia, February 2002

What were the specifications?

The Boeing Sonic Cruiser was approx 250 feet long (76 meters) with a sweeping delta wing body. It could fly around Mach 0.98 (approx 0.10 faster than normal aircraft, but half as slow as a Concorde without the noise problem). This speed was significant over longer routes, shaving off two hours between Singapore and London.

Sonic Cruiser
The design of the aircraft. Photo: Wikimedia

As we know from Qantas’ success with their Perth to London route, which saves around 3-4 hours over flying through hubs, this aircraft definitely had a market.

To avoid existing air traffic, the plane would fly at 40,000 feet or 12,000 m above sea level. It would have a range from 6,000 nmi to 10,000 nmi. Whilst details are hard to come by for how many passengers it would have carried, we estimate around 250 based on the size.

Technology and materials behind the Sonic Cruiser were cutting edge. Boeing had to bring in extra suppliers to create a composite body that would withstand the extra forces and still be incredibly fuel efficient.

“The Sonic Cruiser is a brand-new class of flying machine. Every other commercial jet airplane has been a further refinement of the 707.“- Walt Gillette, general manager of the Sonic Cruiser program, Boeing Frontiers, July 2002

Richard Branson would publically suggest that he would buy three to six of these aircraft if they were built.

Why was it never built?

By 2002, the aircraft design was ready to be finalized, a prototype built and orders secured. However, the aircraft market had changed over those two years, with the terror attacks of 9/11 plunging the sector into a depression and fuel prices rising due to wars in the Middle East.

Airlines simply did not want an aircraft that was more expensive to operate and yet did not really offer any real point of difference (only a saving of two hours for a bigger ticket price for example).

In some cases, the increased speed was actually a disadvantage! Many airports had an operating curfew and overnight flights would have arrived well before their destination opened. Some airlines openly criticized the aircraft, saying that there were not enough airport slots for a faster aircraft to use.

Boeing 787
The Boeing 787 would go on to use much of the Sonic Cruiser technology. Photo: Midlands Airport via Flickr

Boeing, in the end, decided to scrap the project and use its new research on fuel efficiency to develop a slow but cheap to run alternative… the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments. 

2 comments
  1. When the Sonic Cruiser was announced with great fanfare , I immediately had letters published in both AvWeek and Flight Intnln saying that I was underwhelmed by the proposal, which offered a small increase in speed for a significant increase in fuel burn. Being an old fogey I remember the ill fated Convair 880 and 990 , which offered marginal speed advantages over the 707 and DC-8; these were never achieved and Convair disappeared from the market.

  2. Go back to the original Sonic Cruiser press releases and you’ll see Boeing was working on both concepts at the same time.

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