The era of supersonic commercial flights ended when Concorde completed its last trip between New York and London in 2003, but the allure of superfast air travel has never gone away.
President Biden mused about supersonic flights while discussing his infrastructure plans in April. And on Thursday, United Airlines said it had ordered 15 jets that can fly faster than the speed of sound from Boom Supersonic, a Denver-based startup. The airline said it has an option to increase the order to up to 35 planes.
Boom, which has raised $270 million from venture capital firms and other investors, said it plans to introduce the plane in 2025 and begin flight tests in 2026. They hope the plane, which it calls the Overture, will carry passengers before the end of the decade. .
But the startup’s plan has slipped at least once, and it will have to overcome many obstacles, including securing approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and regulators in different countries. other. Even established manufacturers find it difficult to introduce new or redesigned planes. Boeing’s 737 Max plane has been grounded for nearly two years after two crashes.
The deal is United’s latest attempt at positioning itself as a risk-taker rocking an industry that has only just recovered from a devastating pandemic. The airline announced a $20 million investment in an electric air taxi startup, Archer, in February, said Michael Leskinen, head of corporate development at United. is working on a “steady drum beat” of many such bets.
“We really believe in the future,” Mr. Leskinen said. “Aerospace takes a long time to innovate. And so if you don’t start establishing these opportunities now, you’re going to miss them.”
United and Boom would not disclose financial details, including the cost of each plane, but Mr. Leskinen said the economics would be similar to a new Boeing 787, a wide-body aircraft that airlines use. Usually used by airlines on international routes. United has committed to buying the planes if Boom manages to produce them, secure regulatory approvals and achieve other goals, like meeting its sustainability requirements.
Boom also plans to build planes for Japan Airlines, an investor in the company.
What is not clear is whether Boom will solve the problems that forced British Airways and Air France to stop using Concorde on transatlantic flights – the high cost, safety concerns and high demand.
“There is no interest in airlines,” said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst and consultant in the travel industry. “And a big part of the lack of interest by airlines is that there are no commercially available engines to allow a supersonic jet to be economically efficient.”
Two decades later, a number of startups, including Boom and Spike Aerospace, are pushing for new designs and plans.
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Boom, which is working with Rolls-Royce, the British jet engine manufacturer, says its plane will be more efficient than the Concorde; United estimates it will be more than 75 percent efficient. Boom’s planes won’t be as noisy as Concorde’s because their engines only make a popping sound when flying over the water “when no one can hear it,” said Blake Scholl, Boom’s chief executive, who once did jobs at Amazon and Groupon, said.
In recent years, there has also been growing concern about air travel’s contribution to climate change. According to experts, supersonic jets are expected to use more fuel than conventional jets per passenger per mile.
Mr Scholl said Boom’s on-board engines will rely entirely on sustainable aviation fuel, which can be made from waste, plants and other organic matter. Experts say the fuel could reduce emissions, but it is in short supply, expensive and its use does not eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.
United said it’s too early to know how much it will charge for the flights, which it will run out of hubs in Newark and San Francisco to begin with. But another big question mark about airplanes is how many people are willing to shell out the thousands of dollars that each ticket on a supersonic flight is likely to cost.
United has long focused on business travelers, including by adding flights to Israel, China and other destinations popular with executives and by offering more business class seats on board. mine. Mr. Leskinen calls the idea of supersonic travel a “really powerful tool for business”.
“You can have a business meeting and still be at home to have dinner with your family,” he said.
But corporate and international travel is expected to recover slowly from the pandemic, and some experts say it may not fully recover for years as companies realize they can. effectively without many face-to-face meetings.
“The key to the success of supersonic transport is the belittled, underappreciated corporate travel manager, who can be demoted to one of the worst offices in his company. or her – and his main task is to minimize the company’s spending on business travel,” said Mr. . Harteveldt.
If flights save a third of travel time but also cost a third more, travel managers are likely to say, “I don’t know if we can justify that. ”, he said.