Keeping time, no matter what

Boom Supersonic – an American aviation start-up – intends to break the time barrier. Starting in 2025, the company wants to build a next generation aircraft with the auspicious name Overture in a super factory in North Carolina – the first step towards a ‘supersonic renaissance’. It is scheduled to enter commercial service in 2029.

Since the days of Concorde, no one seemed to be giving it a moment’s thought any more. From 1976 onwards, the flagship of French aviation halved the flight time on the Paris–New York route for over a quarter of a century, reducing it to three and a half hours. Finally, in November 1986, Concorde completed a flight around the world in just thirty hours. Concorde’s flying speed (at over two thousand km/h, almost double the speed of sound) was twice that of its competitors, with the result that other aircrafts appeared to be flying backwards as Concorde overtook them. In the case of westbound flights, the arrival time was before the departure time thanks to the magic of time zones (hence the striking slogan ‘Arrive before you leave’).

The disastrous crash of Air France Flight 4590 on a summer’s day twenty years ago sealed Concorde’s fate. A chain of unforeseeable events led to a catastrophe set off by an insignificant chunk of metal on the runway. In those years, however, Concorde was already disappearing from the scene: too expensive, too uncomfortable, too environmentally harmful. Its time had simply passed.

But nothing lasts for ever – and a new generation of aircraft manufacturers are now facing up to the challenge. You’ll be flying at an altitude of twenty kilometres again with the darkness of space above and the curvature of the earth below you. The new Overture has adopted the streamlined shape of its famous predecessor although it is smaller (around seventy seats), less expensive (price of a normal Business Class ticket) and above all environmentally friendly (on paper, it’s emission-free) – essential prerequisites in times of climate change.

Every technology is backed by a vision. In the last few years, our freedom of movement has been significantly curtailed by precautionary measures. Equally, time seemed to stretch almost to infinity as we had to discontinue many of our usual activities. For months on end, we were locked up like prisoners in highly confined spaces. Long-distance travel was merely the stuff of dreams. In fact, however, one of the most famous journeys occurred in a room in 1790 when François-Xavier de Maistre, a young officer in the Kingdom of Savoy, was sentenced to forty-two days of house arrest after a duel with a rival. Under these adverse circumstances, de Maistre embarked on A Journey around my Room and told his story, drawing exclusively on his imagination and irony. ‘Dare to join me on my journey! We will take a short walk every day, and on the way, we’ll laugh about travellers who have seen Rome and Paris – no obstacle can hold us up. And by happily surrendering to our imagination, we will follow wherever it chooses to lead us.’ However, de Maistre was only locked up for one and a half months, not for two years as we were. So it’s very understandable that people started travelling again as soon as humanly possible and at supersonic speed, so to speak.

Travel time determines the limits of our living space. If there are only three hours between both sides of the Atlantic, working life is the first to change. The Paris–New York route has always been of crucial significance in this respect. In the late 1920s, when the telegraph and radio had already made instant communication a reality, ocean steamers still required four to five days for the crossing, depending on sea conditions. For this reason, a small aircraft was launched by catapult from the steamer Île de France two hundred miles off the American coast, to ensure that mail and business people arrived in New York more quickly. Sure, it’s about work but also love, family and leisure time: Faster travel means new holiday opportunities, new interests, new love. And what about the much vaunted slow travel? It’s still extremely popular and it has long aeons of evolution on its side. A smart pace, between three and five km/h, still corresponds to our natural speed perfectly attuned to our senses and thoughts.

But perhaps the question is much simpler. It’s not about returning to the past on a wave of nostalgia nor about the idea of a hyper-technological future but rather about learning to cope with a world of different speeds without taking it for granted that the fastest is always the best for us. Keeping time has nothing to do with speed or slowness. This is well known to musicians and fencers who are masterful at deciding the perfect tempo for a passage of music or a fencing thrust.

Claudio Visentin is an author and journalist and teaches history of tourism at Università della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano.

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