For all its technical innovation, the Concorde, a supersonic British-French passenger jet active from 1976 to 2003, was a commercial disaster.
The aircraft may have been one of only two airplanes to fly commercially at faster than the speed of sound, but the tickets – most of which were never sold – were astronomically expensive, reserving boarding to all but the wealthiest travellers. Fuel consumption was shockingly inefficient, relying on an ‘afterburner’ technique of injecting fuel directly into the exhaust to reach the highest speeds, and the thunderclap sound the plane made as it travelled overhead was so uncomfortable on the ground that several European countries and the US banned the plane from overland travel.
The Concorde landed for the final time in 2003, and no company has picked up the mantle of supersonic travel since then. Even major aviation companies, such as Airbus and Boeing, are content to push the envelope of subsonic travel. The mechanics of ultra high-speed travel work were considered too difficult; the regulatory environment too unforgiving; the business case too fragile.
But a string of startups have thrown their hat into the ring in recent years, pushing for a return to commercial supersonic flights within the next five years.
Chief among these is Boom Supersonic, a company founded by Blake Scholl in 2014. Its ‘Overture’ plane will carry 55 passengers per trip and will fly at Mach 2.2 (1,687 mph), with the company estimating that it could halve the time taken to fly between Tokyo and San Francisco, down from 11 hours to 5 ½ hours. It says it can do even better on the journey from New York to London – slicing travel time from seven hours to 3 hours 15 minutes.
Boom’s focus on oceanic flights makes it stand apart from rival startups Aerion Supersonic and Spike Aerospace, which are chasing a wealthier flier travelling quickly over-land. These too companies therefore have to focus on reducing or displacing the sound issues that plagued the Concorde and supersonic flight in general, whereas Boom can focus entirely on speed and efficiency.
Boom has its first flight scheduled for 2023, and, using advancements in aeronautic engineering, claims its plane will be 30% more efficient and 30 times quieter than the Concorde.
The company’s grand ambitions have received backing from five carriers, including Japan Airlines and Virgin, which have both agreed to purchase a number of planes. Virgin’s Richard Branson also offered Boom flight-test, engineering and manufacturing assistance. As part of the process, Boom is building a one-third-size demonstration model, the XB-1, which it aims to test in the skies this year.
Boom says it expects to spend up to $7billion on bringing the jet to market, yet has to date raised just over $141m. Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, quoted in Popular Science, predicted the company would have “a lot of trouble” securing the overall figure, as it is impossible to predict whether the plane will reach its performance goals or if interest will persist. The engine that Boom needs for its plane to function as planned doesn’t even exist yet.
Whatever happens to the company’s commercial ambitions, Boom will also have to contend with the most pressing external factor: the impending climate crisis. Populations and politicians around the world have been mobilised by the release of worldwide reports finding there are just 12 years to pull back from current rates of emitting or face an environmental catastrophe, the likes of which the world has never seen. Predictions range from mass extinction rates for animals, to huge loss of land to flooding and desertification, to scarce access to water and other invaluable natural resources.
Although Boom is adamant that the environmental impact of flying on Overture will be comparable to flying subsonic business class, and is even in the process of trialling the use of “several alternative fuels”, an influential report by the International Council on Clean Transportation – contested by Scholl – concluded the incoming generation of supersonic aircraft could burn as much as seven times more fuel than conventional jets, and would exceed established CO2 emissions limits by around 70%.
A relatively generous emissions target given to the aviation sector means emissions must be carbon neutral from 2020, and halved by 2050, yet a recent report by the London School of Economics found that only one major airline seemed to be meeting net carbon emissions targets.