Two years ago Boom Supersonic presented big goals at the Paris Air Show. The company intended to put its XB-1 test aircraft into the skies by the end of 2018 and begin commercial service with its production aircraft in the 2023 timeframe. At this year’s show the company revised those dates, slipping to the right on the calendar. At this year’s show the company remained optimistic in the messaging, showcasing milestones reached. When it comes to details, however, the answers remain soft.
XB-1 completed its design work and construction commenced earlier this year. The company now anticipates rolling it out of assembly in December 2019, with flights after the new year. The delays are attributed to a combination of the complexity of the work and efforts to increase the safety of the aircraft.
The XB-1 test flight program will be a short one; the aircraft is not pursuing certification so extensive work is not needed. With the design successfully validated the company intends to transition to work on Overture, the production aircraft design. The revised timeline suggests a first flight around 2025 and commercial service two years after that. Overture’s test plan will be similar to that of traditional commercial aircraft designs, with six frames expected to log thousands of hours of service before the plane delivers to airline customers.
Beyond the revised timeline, the other updates announced during the press conference were far less compelling, lacking detail and, in at least one case, conjuring magic to deliver on the promises.
Engines & Environment
Engine selection remains one of the biggest open challenges for the production model. CEO Blake Scholl previously indicated confidence in the ability for manufacturers to tweak existing designs to support his company’s work. That position was reinforced during the presentation this year. Scholl asserted multiple interested parties and active conversations with all of them; no timing was provided for a decision, however.
There isn’t an economic compromise. There isn’t an environmental compromise. There isn’t a passenger experience compromise.– Boom Supersonic CEO Blake Scholl
Beyond the engine issue, Scholl also addressed the environmental impact of the company’s supersonic endeavors. Given the global conversation about sustainability and air travel the topic was not particularly surprising. The claims that Overture will operate in a manner that supports the industry’s emissions cutting targets are slightly more challenging to process. Boom announced a partnership with Prometheus Fuels to supply carbon-neutral fuel for its XB-1 test program. Early indications are that the XB-1 engines run more efficiently on the sustainable fuels than traditional blends.
Hitting the goal of a fully renewable fuel supply means delivering significant volumes. The ability for Prometheus to deliver on that promise – extracting carbon dioxide from the air and repurposing it into the fuel supply – is unclear. The company’s public face is limited and the underlying technology remains unproven at volume. And Scholl appeared only partially joking when he referred to the work as magical during the press conference. Financial details of the partnership were not disclosed.
Even if the Prometheus fuel efforts are successful the larger project faces other sustainability challenges. Overture will not be more fuel efficient per passenger mile than other next generation aircraft; supersonic consumes more energy, more fuel, to move passengers over the same distance compared to subsonic travel. Moreover, production of sustainable fuels remains terribly limited on the global scale, less that 0.005% of the total demand today. Perhaps Boom’s publicity coattails will help draw greater investment into the segment, but other players are making more visible commitments in volume and based on technologies that are starting to deliver in volume today. And there is no guarantee that airline customers would operate their Overture aircraft using only renewable fuels.
Boom talked a lot about sustainability last week, but its ability to deliver is suspect.
The sonic boom noise impact also remains a huge uncertainty for the company. While the FAA aims to simplify the process of approvals the overland boom corridors limit remains very real today. Scholl expects that the initial operations will only be overwater, though the full potential of the company’s theoretical route map will require the land routes as well. Perhaps NASA’s research into low-boom designs will help, but not for Overture. The timing of that work and Overture’s design schedule do not align. Instead, Scholl suggested that it might be incorporated into the company’s next model, Encore.
The first Boom announcement of the week was a new partnership with JPA Design to develop the cabin interior for Overture. Despite this new partnership the company did not have new interior concepts to show during the press conference. And, while aircraft interior designs take time to refine and deliver, building an interior today for an aircraft that is 8ish years from commercial service would be a questionable investment.
Read More: Boom is poised to go supersonic, but . . .
A partnership with additive manufacturing company Stratasys will help to develop some of the complex parts that XB-1 requires for its test flights. For its part Stratasys is excited to be working on the project, especially as some of the components are expected to be more structural rather than just cosmetic fixtures. This gives Stratasys access to a more advanced environment and the ability to expand its repertoire into the core components of the aircraft industry. The Stratasys efforts will undoubtedly help Boom get XB-1 and Overture into the skies more quickly than without 3D printing technologies. But the real winner in this deal appears to be Stratasys as it gains greater access to the aviation market overall.
Perhaps most telling from this year’s Paris Air Show press conference is that the general media did not push out yet another cycle of stories extolling the glory of supersonic travel, whetting the appetite of potential passengers. Whether that’s specific skepticism around Boom’s ability to deliver or something more general, the market’s willingness to hype the program appears to be waning. That will change when XB-1 is unveiled and again when an engine selection is announced. But, for now, the story is of slipping timelines, even as milestones are reached.
More from the 2019 Paris Air Show
- Airbus A321XLR: The future of single-aisle long-haul travel
- IAG makes a MAX move in Paris
- SmartSky boosts sales channel with Honeywell Aerospace VAR deal
- Different business models, same aircraft model: American, Frontier and JetBlue take on the A321XLR
- Boom’s supersonic timing slips
- Mitsubishi’s SpaceJet buys Bombardier’s support