United Airlines Places Order For 15 Supersonic Jets, Fly Transatlantic in 3.5 Hours Or 5 Hours To Asia

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.

Nineteen years ago frequent flyers took advantage of an amazing deal to fly the Concorde for ~ $1100 roundtrip:

  • 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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. The causes of the Air France crash were far more complicated than described, and most accounts are by people who don’t know enough about it. Here’s the most comprehensive account by someone who knows very well:

  2. This is exciting, but a fuel stop transpacific is going to really hurt the premium market. When you’re used to a high-quality lie flat seat product, do you want to pay more to do a fuel stop while riding in a regional jet-like cabin?

    I always thought the widespread adoption of lie flat seats really hurt the Concorde more than people acknowledge. If you are going to sleep, do you care if the flight is 8 instead of 4 hours? On super premium markets, I think this can work. But it’s a thin thread to base fleet decisions on.

  3. No thank you. I much prefer 16 hour flights where I can disconnect or catch up on work, get some decent sleep, enjoy a nice meal or a beverage. Not looking to get there any faster.

  4. Supersonic is passe. Hypersonic is the future. Washington D.C. to Singapore in 2.5hrs! Wakeup Avgeeks! And it won’t be plebeian United to be the first Supersonic or Hypersonic to be the first to have it. Please. They can only dream.

  5. United could make a far more significant impact on its ability to be financially competitive in the next few years by placing an initial order for a couple score of new generation small mainline aircraft and retire a couple hundred 50 seat regional jets, the least fuel efficient and least comfortable aircraft in the US airline fleet. Market analysts note that United is years behind its U.S. carrier peers in its fleet composition.

  6. I still question whether there will be a big enough market for these to be viable. There is no question that supersonic flying will be both more expensive and have a higher environmental impact. The vast majority of flyers choose flights based on cost, not travel time, and even less price-sensistive business travelers have less incentive to pay more than they did in the past given the fact that flights now offer quality sleep (in J/F) and productivity (with increasingly good internet access). Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE to take a supersonic flight, but put me down as very skeptical that the next 20 years will see any meaningful move toward it being the norm.

  7. Supersonic travel should be an available option. Great to see the push for it to return. Hopefully it becomes reality.

  8. Whoever made this decision at United is an idiot. Unless it 200+ seats and long range, it will be the Concorde all over again.

  9. The market exists. Folks who shell out 20MM for a boat to vacation on for 2 weeks a year or who charter BBJs for families to come home for Christmas will use it.

    Owners? Maybe not but that’s what Netjets is for.

    I am genuinely surprised a fractional ownership company is not the first one in line.

  10. Demand for supersonic flight is going to be massive, particularly trans-pacific. With its $18Bn in orders Boom looks like the winner in the view of a lot of the ‘smart money’.

  11. @Robert Milton: Boeing estimates they could do hypersonic in 30 years. They can fly your coffin to Singapore for the weekend.

  12. UNITED GOES SUPERSONIC….

    This is the title that United wanted to garner from the Media.

    Such an ‘announcement’ is nothing more than a publicity stunt and free advertising both of which you have granted in a bid for sensationalism. United’s orders will never materialise. They have spent close to decade dithering on orders for A350s from Airbus in an attempt to curry more favourable terms with Boeing for 777 and 787s, and after much handwringing, have yet to execute on any of arguably the most efficient widebody airliners for their long haul routes.

    Consumers don’t want to pay anymore than they need to; given that no American airline ever purchased the Concorde or for that matter any airline other than the British and French national flag carriers of the time, and with massive government subsidies at a time before deregulation, how would even a business traveller on an expense account justify the extra luxury premium of SST? Given the Pandemic adoption of Zoom and Docusign, the days of such frivolities are outweighed by o will guard against such waste. When Amazon recently terminated an Executive who insisted on business Class travel to New Zealand from California instead of authorised Coach, who today would consider such an excess as plausible?

    Please save us all from these sensationalist idiosyncratic distractions. Travelling for 8 hours at Mach 2 (excluding the mandatory technical stop for refuelling) in a cabin that resembles a regional jet is not a plausible concept – at least the Concorde had a cache that overcame its commercial flaws. Today’s travellers wear flip flops and tank tops, not Mink Stoles and Givenchy Suits. Gone are the days of Cabin Service with a demure sultry smile, and more that of a hardened, steely glint if one raise an eyebrow for a refreshment to parch one’s thirst…..

    Christopher B
    Aspen, Colorado

  13. United could do transcon flights on this – just need to climb out over the ocean (like many flights already do) and do the supersonic transition there, then turn and complete the overland portion. And vice versa on the other end.

  14. @Christopher B: That’s a lot of words to make a simple error. The company has $18Bn in orders.

  15. United won’t put the aircraft on a route that would require a fuel stop. That would defeat the whole purpose. There will be a very few specific routes this aircraft would be good for, and the business travelers will be happy to pay up.

    As far as liking a 16 hour flight? Lol I never liked a single one, flat seats or not.

  16. Does anyone think is really ever going to come to pass? We are talking United here

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