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Supersonic flights – Are you ready? | Ticker Original

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It’s the news about Boom supersonics that av-geeks have been waiting for since… well 2003. Why 2003? I’ll explain in a moment.

The leap of faith by US airline United is exactly what aviation startup Boom Technology needed to show the market it was onto a winner with its next-generation supersonic jet.

https://twitter.com/tickerNEWSco/status/1400414641579298819?s=20

October 2003 was the last time the world saw a supersonic commercial airliner take to the skies, as the final Corcorde jet landed for the last time and British Airways and Air France retired their remaining aircraft.

The final Concorde flight from British Airways in 2003
The final Concorde flight from British Airways in 2003

It was the end of an era. The romantic super wealthy supersonic jetliner had been fictionalised as the jet of the future. But high fuel costs, low passenger numbers, and a deadly crash in Paris (even though it wasn’t the fault of the aircraft) sealed its fate.

So the decision by one of the world’s biggest airlines to purchase Boom’s new Overture aircraft is huge. Not just because of the delivery, but because of who is buying it. Traditionally, US carriers stick to what they know. Most of the time its Boeing, and sometimes Airbus, but mostly just to keep Boeing on its competitive toes.

“Boom’s vision for the future of commercial aviation, combined with the industry’s most robust route network in the world, will give business and leisure travellers access to a stellar flight experience.”

United CEO Scott Kirby

So for one of the old guard to place an order for 15 Overture jets is a really big deal. But is it a really good idea?

The Boom sales pitch

Before we tear the dream apart, let’s look at the promise from Boom and United.

Supersonic flight is when an aircraft travels faster than the speed of sound. 

At an altitude of 60,000ft (18,300m), that means flying faster than 660mph (1,060km/h). 

A typical passenger jet may cruise at about 560mph (900km/h) but the supersonic Boom Overture is expected to reach speeds of 1,122mph (1,805km/h) – also known as Mach 1.7.

That cuts the flying time over the Atlantic or Pacific literally in half. Something that helped Concorde become the aircraft of choice for busy businessmen.

There’s that great episode of Absolutely Fabulous, where Eddie and Patsie travel to New York and back in a day to buy a door handle, all thanks to the Concorde.

Eddie and Patsy flying to New York on the Concorde
Eddie and Patsy flying to New York on the Concorde

But for the rest of us, and those of us too young to take a keen interest in flash-fashion doorknobs, the Concorde was nothing more than a dream.

Denver-based supersonic developer Boom Technology is promising to bring back the era of supercharged flying.

Is the industry ready?

The flying public, sick of the ever tightening capacity of 737s or A320s probably love the idea of flying to their destinations faster, if it allows them to unpack their legs out of the vacuum seal and cut their journey times in half.

But as Boeing often reminds us, it’s airlines who buy passenger planes, not passengers. And with the price of oil reaching 100 dollars a barrel, efficiency, not speed, has been on the minds of aviation executives for the past 25 years.

A key challenge will be the logistics of sustainable fuel

Infrastructure burden

It’s one thing to create the supersonic jet of the future, it’s another thing to make it work. Boom says the supersonic Overture will be able to fly on sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and be the first commercial plane to immediately reach net-zero carbon emissions.

Sounds great, except when you think of the logistics to make this happen. Not every aviation expert believes they can.

“Is there infrastructure in the pipeline and existing to ramp up the supply? if this plane takes off in 2029, that’s eight years away. Can we see the ramp up of sustainable aviation fuel and capacity to power this aircraft?” asks aviation journalist Joran Chong.

“I think there’s been a lot of advancements for stable aviation fuel plants in Europe and the US. The technology and science is coming up with more ways to produce sustainable aviation fuel. That’s the ambition, that’s the hope,” Jordan says.

Singapore Airlines A380s parked in a desert
Singapore Airlines A380s parked in a desert

The lesson from the A380

While Boeing was deciding whether to go for speed or efficiency before eventually deciding on the 787 Dreamliner, the US aircraft manufacturer was also in a semi culture war with Airbus over a simple question. Was the future of aviation about flying hub to hub, or flying point to point?

Airbus believed major airports were reaching capacity for available slots, and invested heavily in the double decker A380. Boeing believed future orders would more likely come from airlines wanting to fly more boutique routes for passengers, and opted for smaller aircraft. Airlines like Qantas who fly both the A380 and the 787 found it would be cheaper to put two 787s on the same route as an A380.

The A380 would suffer an untimely death for passengers. Not just because of COVID, but also because airlines just didn’t buy them, or fulfil the orders they thought they might need. While passengers loved the comfort and space of an A380, airlines found them tough to fill.

But might Boom have the opposite problem?

Boom promises to be carbon neutral
Boom promises to be carbon neutral

Speed v Space

While the Concorde looked stunningly stylish from the outside, the interior of the supersonic jet left a lot to be desired.

“It was a lot more like premium economy,” says Jordan Chong.

In order to fit as many people into the small aircraft as possible, the seats were far narrower than business travellers are used to today.

The tiny Concorde cabin has been described as “premium economy”

Which raises a key question for business travellers who might have to make a choice in 2029. Would you rather fly business class more comfortably, but on a longer journey? Or would you rather fly faster with no flat bed?

“The argument could be made that if you’re flying for only three to four hours, do you really need a lie flat seat given they are short distances? You’re paying for speed rather than comfort or amenity,” Jordan says.

Is there demand for supersonic travel?

Boom Technology seems to think so, but they need more than United to agree. After years of losses, it was only in Concorde’s final years that it began to make a profit for British Airways.

Today, wealthy travellers have many choices. From competitively priced Business Class and First Class fares, to the choice of their own private jets – a lot has changed since the Concorde left our skies.

Boom will begin tests flights of its Overture jets in 2026.

But for now, it’s still only a paper plane.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Andrew

    June 7, 2021 at 5:50 pm

    Very interesting Ahron

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