United Airlines has aggressively bet on new technologies, like its billion dollar order in February for electric aircraft from Archer Aviation to provide quick, efficient connections to the airline’s hubs.
Now they’ve become the first major U.S. carrier to place an order for Boom supersonic jets putting themselves down for 15 with an option for 35 more. The plane, which hasn’t been built yet, is targeted for passenger service in 2029 – which means it will be sometime in the 2030s before you’ll ever see it.
The plan for these supersonic aircraft to use sustainable aviation fuels is consistent with United’s environmental investments which are more aggressive than other carriers (such as Delta’s dubious carbon offsets and American’s focus on new planes).
The company plans to make its first flight later this year with a demonstrator jet called the XB-1. If it goes as planned, Boom will begin production of the Overture in 2023 and conduct its first flight in 2026. The ultimate hurdle will be winning certification by regulators, including the Federal Aviation Administration.
When that happens, United expects to target long-haul international flights between key large cities around the world, like San Francisco to Tokyo and New York to Paris.
- Buy 21 subscriptions to Inside Flyer magazine, earning 2500 Starwood points for each purchase
- Transfer those Starwood points to Qantas at 1:2 (with bonus, 20,000 Starwood points yielded 50,000 Qantas points back then)
- Qantas used to let you book Concorde for the same price as British Airways first class. Shortly thereafter Qantas increased the cost of premium cabin awards as much as 92%.
This was after Concorde’s one and only crash in 2000 but before its last flight in 2003. Air France flight AF4590 punctured a tire running over a piece of metal from a Continental DC-10 that had taken off before it. The tire exploded, and rubber from the tire hit the plane’s fuel tank and caused a fire. With only one operational engine the plane couldn’t gain altitude.
Since the retirement of Concorde there’s been no supersonic commercial air travel. It had competitors – the Soviet Tupolov nicknamed Konkordski, and the Boeing 2707 SST which was never completed. The first production version of the Tupolov Tu-144 crashed at the Paris Air Show in 1973, supposedly the plane was built based on stolen planes from the French and Americans but they had been fed fake plans.
It’s amazing that Concorde entered commercial service as long ago as 1976 yet its Mach 2 speeds haven’t been matched by new aircraft since. But Concorde took about 8 times as much fuel per passenger mile as a conventional jet, and the sonic booms it generated created backlash from voters.
Only one U.S. airline ever operated Concordes. Braniff leased planes from British Airways and Air France and flew domestically in 1979 and 1980 at subsonic speeds from Dallas to Washington Dulles where BA and Air France crews would take over for the onward journey to London and Paris.
Supersonic travel has been banned over the U.S. ostensibly due to noise but there weren’t specific noise limits, just a ban on the technology. The FAA finally changed its tune and though it’s taken a decade has become open to supersonic travel again. At the same time startups like Boom have been developing engines that can achieve supersonic speeds at greater efficiencies than Concorde’s 1970s technology.
We may see new jets that can fly Mach 2.2 or 10% faster than Concorde, at best after 50 years we’re likely only looking at 10% more speed. Boom’s Overture aircraft is projected to fly at Mach 1.7.
As long as supersonic travel is more expensive than subsonic, the market will be limited. And limited markets make it tough to recoup development and acquisition costs. Airlines have a hard time making money operating only a couple of planes of a type. The plane needs to be capable of flying long distances, fuel efficiently, and carry large numbers of passengers in order to be economical on a large scale.
Otherwise the market has to be able to support fares significantly higher than for subsonic transport. The ultimate question is: how much is shaving 3.5 hours off of a transatlantic flight worth, and to how many people?
In 10 years cars are supposed to drive themselves, and our kids will ask vexingly did people really used to drive themselves, and how was that possible without having accidents all the time? And in 10 years we may be flying across the Atlantic in 3 hours and across the Pacific in 5 hours.