Aviation sector buzz about the aircraft, set aloft by Boom Supersonic’s deal with United Airlines, is a whirl of excitement tinged with unanswered questions.
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Talk of supersonic aircraft making a return prompts reflection on the Concorde, which began its 27-year run in 1976. In its heyday the jet was an engineering marvel. But viewed now, through a 21st-century lens, the technology behind the exceedingly loud, fuel-guzzling aircraft loses some luster. New supersonic jet technology will have to come a long way to meet modern expectations. This is precisely what Boom Supersonic CEO Blake Scholl has in mind, describing his firm’s Overture commercial airliner as “picking up where Concorde left off”.
Set to go into service in 2029, the Boom Overture is envisioned as the “fastest and most sustainable supersonic airliner”, according to Boom Supersonic’s website, transporting up to 88 passengers at 1.7 times the speed of sound. Scholl aims to make the jet everything Concorde was not in terms of sustainability and accessibility.
Unlike Concorde’s four military-derived turbojet engines, which together burned 6,771 gallons (25,629 litres) of fuel per hour, Overture’s quieter civilian engines will use sustainable fuel. Boom places much emphasis on the sustainability aspect, which is a top priority for the aviation industry overall, as it is keen to address the concerns of environmentalists and meet the sustainability requirements of both regulators and airlines.
Whereas the Concorde was only for the super-rich, Scholl promises to make supersonic fares attainable “for everyone”; that is, everyone who can afford an all-business class flight. According to The Economist, Boom will keep operating costs 75% below those of Concorde, owed to better aerodynamics, materials and engines.
Until this vision is realized, the significance of the Overture to the future of aviation and travel is up in the air. Last month United Airlines became the first U.S. airline to place an order, agreeing to buy 15 planes with options to purchase 35 more. Combined, JAL and Virgin Atlantic have options to acquire 30 of them. But it is unclear whether any cash has gone into the deals just yet.
Aerospace consultant Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group doubts it, cautioning that purchase deals for next-generation in-development aircraft typically involve little money changing hands. Rather, what the aspiring plane-makers gain is “tons of publicity, and perhaps even investor attention”. Another supersonic hopeful, Aerion, collapsed in May despite having over $11 billion in orders and backing from aerospace giant Boeing.
Nevertheless, Boom is not the only company still enthusiastically working to develop commercial supersonic planes. Some see big possibilities for the industry. Estimates from Swiss bank UBS put the size of the supersonic travel market between $80 billion and $280 billion by 2040. This will depend on the industry’s ability to meet regulations and deliver the planes, operating as promised, on time and on budget. Scholl is optimistic. Beyond the launch of Overture 1, he envisions making improvements to subsequent generations, leading to larger planes, higher speeds and lower fares.