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Supersonic passenger travel will have a renaissance

When the iconic Concorde was spotted for the final time at Heathrow Airport in October 2003, the supersonic air travel time had reportedly come to an end.

When Concorde first burst onto the aviation scene in the year 1976 it certainly made an impact. With speeds of Mach 2, travelling on Concorde reduced the duration of the journey from London to New York to just three hours – less than half of the typical flying time compared to the subsonic aircraft.

High-profile businesspeople and wealthy passengers flocked to experience Concorde’s unrivalled speed and luxury service and the jet quickly became an exclusive experience that many would aspire to.

However, hit by increasing fuel costs that surpassed profit and a restriction on the routes the aircraft could travel due to the jet’s noise levels, after more than 25 years of service, Concorde was no longer a viable investment.

The high-profile accident of Air France’s Concorde Flight 4590 in 2000, that killed 113 people as it was leaving Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris also took its toll. Up until that point, Concorde had enjoyed an impeccable security record and was regarded to be among the most secure aircraft in the world.

After investigations revealed that the aircraft had slammed into debris that was on the runway during take-off, and caused one of the tyres to rupture and puncture the fuel tank, changes were implemented. These included Kevlar lining for the fuel tanks as well as specially designed burst-resistant tyres.

However, this did not make a huge difference . In 2003, the dwindling number of passengers triggered by the Paris crash and the 9/11 terrorist attacks caused Concorde’s owners, Air France and British Airways, to simultaneously announce they would be retiring the aircraft in the coming year.

A few attempts were made to revive Concorde. However, the operating costs as well as the limited number of passengers and a rising demand for cheaper travel, along with Airbus pulling its support of maintenance, eventually resulted in supersonic travel was to be firmly filed away behind museum doors.

Between 2003 and the late 2010s, little changed within the realm of supersonic aircraft. The growing demand for planes that could carry more passengers and burn fuel economically meant that there was no demand to develop modern-day Concorde equivalent.

However, in 2019, all that had changed after a brand new race for supersonic jets capable of flying faster than sound started to build momentum.

A spate of start-ups with varying levels of ambition were aiming to bring about a new era for supersonic air travel. One of them is Boom – a Denver-based company which, after only five years of operation the company, had raised $141 million from investors in order to build 55-seat aircrafts that could fly at double the speed of sound. But with one key differentiator from Concorde that is the competitive rates for passengers.

Boom announces that its Overture jet is scheduled to roll off production lines from 2025 and is expected to travel at Mach 1.7 (slightly below Concorde’s Mach 2.04) – more than twice the speed of the fastest commercial aircraft of today.

Virgin Atlantic – a company that is known for its investments in the future of air travel and a keen advocate of Concorde – was the first to sign an agreement with Boom in 2016, agreeing to partner with the company in the construction and test its aircrafts.

In the past, two more operators, United Airlines and American Airlines have made orders for Boom for 15 and 20 aircraft respectively. It is evident that the demand for ultrasonic travel has returned. What’s changed, and why are carriers eager to offer the option of supersonic travel once again?

Some of this is answered by Boom’s founder, Blake Scholl. With no background in aerospace, Scholl set about researching how to resurrect supersonic flight after giving up looking for someone else who could fulfil his goal of being able to fly on Concorde one day.

In the course of making plans for his start-up Scholl’s studies discovered that operating costs were the most important factor to successfully restoring supersonic travel. He stated:

“Concorde was too expensive to operate, so few people could afford to fly on it. Using Wikipedia, I ran the numbers to work out what I would have to do to make it economically feasible. It turns out the answer is to make the fuel efficiency 30% better. So, I went and read some aerospace textbooks, and took a design class, and started to meet everyone I could find in the industry. I told them to shoot holes in my ideas. Eventually, people started to say, ‘this actually makes sense’ – so we started a company.”

Concorde, while luxurious, was renowned for having a very small cabin, which meant conditions for passengers were cramped. Boom’s aircraft will tackle this by installing wide seats, big windows and allowing ample space for relaxation and work.

While the experience of passengers flying supersonic aircraft is being improved but there aren’t exact figures for how much passengers will have to pay for fly aboard Boom’s Overture aircraft, and this could be a chink in Boom’s finely crafted armour.

With business travel taking a backseat because of the pandemic and leisure tourism flourishing, it remains be seen whether supersonic aircraft will be the game changer it promises to the aviation industry. In the meantime, those who hope for an opportunity to return to the excitement of supersonic travel are not deterred.


Supporting opinion Supersonic air travel will come back. Read more Supersonic travel will come back.

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