|Montreal, May 10, 2003 / No 124|
by Harry Valentine
Over the past month, both British Airways and Air France retired their fleets of supersonic SST Concorde jetliners. Changing market conditions caused by the Iraq situation, the economic downturn and advances in telecommunications technology resulted in fewer passengers using the fast planes. The Concordes had operated the London-New York City and Paris-New York City routes, using airports that were located well outside Metropolitan areas.
Shortly after they first entered revenue service, Ottawa wanted to introduce
Concorde service between Montreal and Paris. It became one of the main
reasons as to why Mirabel International Airport was built well outside
the metropolitan areas of both Montreal as well as Laval. The SST Concordes
generated horrendous noise levels at airports, especially during take-offs.
Federal government officials and their consultants sang the old chorus line about "spin-off economic benefits and downstream jobs" that would result from the government having spent money to build Mirabel airport. There even were plans to build a special high-speed train service, at taxpayer expense, intended to operate on its own track between Montreal and Windsor. Planned stops included Dorval, Mirabel, Ottawa, Kingston and downtown Toronto, Toronto airport and London. The same chorus line was sung to justify government expenditure on that proposal. Eventually the cost estimates of the high-speed train escalated to beyond $20-billion by the early 1990's, when the proposal was finally scrapped. While SST Concorde service between Montreal and Western Europe never materialised, governments began funding research into developing an even faster concept, called HST or hypersonic transport.
A review done on the internet of several university faculties of aerospace engineering from several nations, including Canada which has its own space agency, has revealed well over a hundred professors and researchers undertaking extensive research into various technical aspects of hypersonic flight. These aircraft are intended to fly at several times the speed of the original Concordes. This research has included laboratory experiments as well as the building and recent testing of a scale-model hypersonic jet engine. Several hundred academic research papers have already been published on this subject, with several (hundred) more still to come. Universities worldwide require academic staff to regularly undertake research (mainly using government funds) and publish academic papers if they are to be eligible for promotion or for tenure.
If the HST is ever built (at taxpayer expense), it could fly from Hong Kong to Vancouver in under 2-hours, travelling at eight to ten times the speed of sound (5,000-miles/hour to 6,400-miles/hour), at altitudes of over 200,000-feet (61,000-m) and where air temperature drops to below minus 60 degrees C. A 2:00PM hypersonic flight from Vancouver (6:00AM in Hong Kong) could arrive at Hong Kong just in time for breakfast (7:30AM). The 1.5-hour return flight could leave Hong Kong at 1:00PM (9:00PM in Vancouver) and arrive at Vancouver for 10:30PM. A long distance east-west flight in either direction would likely intensify the jet-lag problem that flyers usually experience. Business executives would have to restrict themselves to same-day return hypersonic flights, at exhorbitant cost, to minimize these adverse effects. Their ability to function effectively at crucial, multi-day business meetings could otherwise be impaired.
However, before the hypersonic airplane ever carries its first revenue passenger, it faces potential competition for future business travel from advances in telecommunications technology. State attempts to guide and influence this sector have resulted in only 4% of fibre optic cable actually being used. Emerging broadband internet technology enables similtaneous transmission of image and voice along these cables. Already, individual business people are able to communicate with collegues online, using such programs as Microsoft's Netmeeting. This program allows similtaneous voice and image transmission as well as an almost instantaneous transfer of business-related information files. Newer, more advanced telecomminucations technologies that are now emerging will allow entire groups of people to hold conferences with other groups of people, over large distances.
By combining emerging broadband information transmission technology with emerging new big-screen technology, life-size images can be made to appear on a wall-sized screen that resembles a plexiglass room divider. Tiny "cameras" can be embedded in such screens and barely be noticeable. Conference tables could be placed near such screens in corporate offices or in selected hotel conference rooms located in various parts of the world. This would enable groups of business people in diverse geographic locations to hold pre-arranged meetings. Attendees at distant locations would appear on the screen as if they were all in the same conference room, except for the see-through, hear-through plexiglass room divider. They would be able to see, hear and speak to each other, even exchange information with each other, almost as if they all were in the same room.
Executives could enter a conference room in Montreal at 9:00 AM just as their collegues entered an identical conference room in Paris at 3:00 PM (6-hours time difference between Montreal and Paris). Each conference room would appear on the screen as if it were a part or extension of the other conference room. Colleagues from two or more distant locations could engage in brain-storming problem solving exercises, even formulate future tactical business strategy to enable them to manage their way through changing global market conditions. They could "write" ideas on electronic black boards (located on the wall of each room) using electro-optical "light" pens. The writing would similtaneously appear on the other boards. Relevant information could also appear on smaller screens (Power Point presentations) while hand-outs could be distributed from printers located in each conference room. Such emerging telecommunications technology is being mainly developed on private funding and would ultimately reduce the need for expensive, long-distance business travel aboard state-funded hypersonic airplanes.
The combination of crossing several time zones on east-west transpacific routes at extreme high speeds could cause travellers to suffer severe jet-lag fatigue problems. Because of this, the HST could see service on east-west transpacific routes as an air-freight service (UPS or Fedex International Express services) that may also operate as a "combi," carrying a small number of passengers. Or the jet-lag problem may relegate it to operation mainly on north-south routes, where no or few time zones are crossed. Such north-south routes would include Sydney-Tokyo, New York City-Buenos Aires, Cape Town-London. However, the closer the international locations are in terms of time zones, the easier it is to conduct longer tele-conferenced business problem-solving and brain-storming sessions.
We may be witnessing the beginning of another government-engineered economic disaster similar to that of the Concorde. Despite the potential for competition by telecommunications technology, HST proponents will likely sing the mantra of "future spin-off benefits for the economy and downstream jobs" resulting from government funding of hypersonic airplane research and development. They will likely disregard the unseen impact that massive government spending on an HST program would otherwise have on other unrelated sectors of the economy.
There is no question that revenue spent by government on hypersonic airplane research and development was previously taxed away from other non-related, wealth creating and wealth generating areas of the economy. New business investment, new business development, new wealth creation activities and new job creation opportunities were curtailed in these other sectors of the economy. State bureaucrats who oversee and administer this transfer of funds into political projects also consume a sizeable portion of it. Had the funding been left with the original creators of wealth, they may have used the funds more efficiently, more productively and to more worthwhile ends, that is, creating new wealth and to far greater benefit to far more people.
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