This Thursday, United Airlines announced a purchase of 15 supersonic jets from the Denver-based start-up company Boom Technology. This news comes 18 years after the retirement of the Concorde and when commercial supersonic air travel was last in service. United’s proposal to buy these hyper-fast jets could finally bring supersonic air travel back into the industry in the years to come, but many variables still lie ahead.
The aircraft United Airlines is investing in is called the Boom “Overture.” Each Overture jet is offered at $200 million, a similar price to the old $203 million unit cost of the Concorde (adjusted for inflation). The Overture will be able to hold a maximum of 88 passengers and cover a range of 4888 miles. It is also capable of cruising at an altitude of 60,000 feet and speeds up to Mach 1.7. At these speeds, the Overture would be able to cut air travel time down to almost half of what it used to be. However, the most impressive specification of the Overture is that it is claimed to fly with 100% sustainable fuel and release net-zero carbon emissions during operations. Boom is working with Rolls Royce to create such an engine. From this highly efficient engine, Boom also claims that airfares on the Overture will be as low as $100 one-way, an astonishingly cheaper price compared to the price of Concorde’s tickets more than a decade ago. As for the interior of the plane, Boom claims that they will offer spacious, single aisle business class seats throughout the whole plane. Each seat will include direct aisle access and large, comfortable windows. The production of the Overture is scheduled to begin in 2023, its first flight is expected to be in 2026, and the aircraft is estimated to begin commercial service in 2029.
United’s order of 15 Overture jets is valued at $3 billion, but the companies have not disclosed the actual financial details of the investment yet. A person familiar with the matter has revealed that United has already made an industry-standard deposit to Boom, even though the Overture or a prototype version has not been built or tested yet. United is only committed to purchasing these aircraft if they meet the sustainability proposals made by Boom and the FAA regulatory requirements. The program is expected to face a hurdle when being approved by the FAA due to several restrictions that prevent supersonic aircraft from travelling overland. If the plane does meet the standards though, United said that it has an option to add 35 more aircraft to the order, which would increase the airline’s supersonic fleet to 50. It is unknown if United will cancel their orders if the requirements are not met. If the aircraft does reach commercial service, United plans to operate the Overture from coastal United States cities to overseas destinations. United is planning for Overture’s inaugural and main route to be from New York to London, the route Concorde flew last.
How the Overture is not just another “Concorde”
With the failure of the previous supersonic jet program, the Overture is expected to face many of the same challenges that discontinued the Concorde. Boom attempts to revive supersonic air travel by correcting the flaws of the Concorde. One of the most critical problems was the noise generated from supersonic activity. Boom aims to counter this by designing the engines of the Overture so that they only create sonic booms when flying over bodies of water, where there is no one to hear the noises. Another detrimental problem that the Concorde faced was the high operating costs and airfares that dissuaded passengers from travelling supersonic. To counter this problem, Boom says that they will use completely sustainable aircraft fuel, which would be at a significantly cheaper price than regular jet fuel, and as a result of this, they would charge less money for tickets. Aside from these problems, it is still unsure how Boom will tackle other, less significant problems that the Concorde faced. Safety ratings on the Overture have also not yet been analyzed, so the reliability of the future supersonic air travel hasn’t been determined yet.
United and Boom’s idea to revitalize supersonic air travel seems like a very ambitious goal, especially after a devastating blow from the pandemic. The project doesn’t seem concretely practical right now, and United could be rushing into the supersonic aircraft market too quickly and early, but times will eventually show how successful this program will be. If supersonic planes do indeed make it into the skies in 2029, it could be the beginning of a new supersonic age of air travel. Hyper-fast travel across the world could be the norm for future generations, and it could change the aviation market dramatically over the next few decades. For now, though this concept only remains a vision, and we will have to see if the dream of supersonic travel will become reality again in the next 8 years.
Cover Image: United Airlines