Unfavorable economic circumstances, sky-high travel fares, and the impact of a tragic crash shut the book on the first chapter of commercial supersonic flight in 2003.
Now, almost two decades later we are on the verge of seeing a new supersonic commercial airliner take flight, fueled by technological progress and the travel boom of recent years.
"Since the Concorde stopped flying in 2003, air travel has more than doubled from 1.6 billion to over 4 billion passengers per year, indicating the market is there for supersonic travel," Brian Durrence, Boom Supersonic's Senior Vice President tells us in an interview conducted over email.
U.S.-based Boom Supersonic might be the closest of several companies to deliver on the promise of a new commercial supersonic aircraft. This year, it aims to fly a scale model of its Overture aircraft, having raised close to $200 million. But how is the landscape different from 2003?
A 2020 UBS report cites consumer willingness to pay significant premiums over business class prices, despite the ongoing pandemic. It shows that there is, indeed, a stronger market potential for commercial supersonic flight. However, a strong incentive is key to travelers paying those high prices.
The case for revisiting commercial supersonic flight
For Boom Supersonic providing that incentive is all about travel time. As the Boom Overture is planned to maintain a Mach 2.2 speed — similar to the cruising speed of Concorde — it will be able to travel from New York to London in approximately three hours.
"Supersonic travel represents a significant shift in the competitive landscape," Durrence explains.
"Carriers have thin margins and often only differentiate themselves on the comfort of their seats, the quality of their food, and the friendliness of their crews. But when time becomes a dimension for differentiation, airlines operating supersonic airliners can set themselves apart," he continues.
Another key issue that Boom Supersonic is tackling is one of the problems that led to the Concorde's demise — the unsustainable cost of keeping the aircraft operational.
"The French and British governments [designed the Concorde] to push the limits of technology, not profit," Durrence says. "Boom [on the other hand] is leveraging scientific advancements in aerodynamics, materials, and propulsion that will enable efficient and profitable supersonic travel."
This cost reduction for airline companies will, in turn, have a positive impact on travelers. "Overture will reduce operating costs enough to turn a profit at business-class fares that the market already supports," Durrence explains.
'Decades of technological progress in propulsion design'
The engineering landscape of aviation has also seen a major shift since 2003. One of the key differentiators, in technological terms, between the Overture and the Concorde is the latter aircraft's much more efficient afterburners.
"The afterburners used by Concorde for takeoff and to break through the high-drag sonic barrier were extremely loud and inefficient," Durrence says.
"Thanks to five decades of technological progress in propulsion design, Overture will be able to perform all phases of flight, from takeoff through supersonic speeds, without afterburners—it’s a much more efficient and reliable aircraft," he explains.
Key to testing and honing this technology is Boom's X-B1 aircraft, a 21.6 m (71 ft) long, scaled-down version of Overture that will reach speeds of Mach 1.3 thanks to triple J85-15 engines manufactured by General Electric.
Tests are set to begin this year, and they will act as a guide for Overture's eventual design, Durrence claims:
"We have been advancing Overture’s conceptual design throughout the XB-1 program with these learnings, and are already several years ahead on Overture's development," he says. "When XB-1 flies this year, we will be finalizing Overture’s design."
Boom Supersonic's ambitious sustainability goals
Besides the vast shifts in the economic and technological landscapes of the last two decades, we also now live in a world where airline companies have to comply with restrictions aimed at curbing the industry's carbon emissions.
A partnership between Boom Supersonic and Rolls-Royce announced in July of last year, is aimed at maximizing the Overture's fuel efficiency, ensuring the model can utilize sustainable aviation fuels, and minimizing noise.
"Boom is taking an all-encompassing approach to sustainability, and it’s a key part of our culture as a company," Durrence explains. "This mindset includes how we develop, build, and test aircraft; how we design our facility; how we plan for recycling at the end of Overture’s useful life; and how we set our customers up for success, minimizing community noise and emissions."
This has led to Boom Supersonic announcing several ambitious sustainability goals: XB-1 will be carbon neutral, for example, and the aim is for the "Overture fleet be carbon neutral from day one and capable of running on 100% sustainable alternative fuels," Durrence says.
The race to go supersonic
Boom Supersonic isn't the only company developing new supersonic aircraft for commercial flight. NASA, for example, has developed the X-59, an experimental supersonic aircraft that lowers the noise levels of the sonic boom.
Aerion Supersonic, in cooperation with Boeing, is developing a supersonic business jet, which might fly by 2025.
Boom's upcoming test flights for its XB-1 aircraft seemingly put it in pole position to release its Overture aircraft before the competition. Still, there's a long journey ahead.
Durrence says that the first Overture aircraft will be rolled out in 2025 and begin flight tests the following year in 2026. "We expect Overture to begin carrying passengers by 2029," he says.
Boom's main motivation is to "remove the barriers to experiencing the planet," Durrence claims. A few more months of tests promise to kickstart a new chapter in commercial supersonic flight and create a new population of world citizens in our post-pandemic remote work-friendly world.