United Airlines plans to purchase at least 15 supersonic jets from Boom, assuming the planes can be manufactured and clear FAA certification requirements. The deal represents the first firm order for the Overture jet, though JAL holds options for some deliveries as well. If everything goes to plan the jets could be carrying passengers between the US East Coast and Europe by the end of the decade, operating with 100% sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) to reduce carbon emissions.
Boom’s vision for the future of commercial aviation, combined with the industry’s most robust route network in the world, will give business and leisure travelers access to a stellar flight experience.– United CEO Scott Kirby
Given Boom’s track record so far – and the general industry positioning on SAFs and supersonic jets right now – that timing might be a bit optimistic.
Boom’s CEO Blake Scholl continues to hype the idea that airlines will be able to sell seats on Overture at the same price as they deliver their business class product today (as well as the far-fetched, fever dream of $100 fares and 4-hour flights anywhere in the world eventually). He also believes that the operating costs can be pushed down to a level comparable with today’s subsonic operations.
Airlines, however, recognize that selling a better product at the same price is a bad choice. Supersonic seats will almost necessarily come with a higher price tag. Not only because people will theoretically pay for the time saved – that’s the draw of supersonic, after all – but because the operating costs will absolutely be higher, economically and environmentally.
The fuel conundrum
Boom has positioned Overture as a carbon-neutral aircraft. This is based on its design to operate on 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAFs) from day one. But the supply stock and production capacity for SAFs is insufficient. If Overture does manage to fly by the end of the decade and wants to operate on 100% SAFs there’s a very real possibility that it would consume (nearly) all of the SAF supply in the markets where it operates.
The ICCT identified expected emissions levels for supersonic transport at 5-7x compared to subsonic travel. Plus they cost significantly more than traditional fuels.
How can the industry reconcile the potential for a fuel bill 10-20x higher than subsonic travel with selling seats at the same price? In short, it cannot.
Will corporate customers pay?
Knowing that the costs will be higher, can United convince its corporate customers to cough up the extra cash? Concorde suffered on that front.
And while many in the industry are bullish on a post-pandemic recovery in the long-haul business travel market in the years ahead, most agree that it will look different from today. Will day trips be replaced by longer, more in depth visits? The former are where supersonic could help most, and the business case remains murky.
Also unclear is whether businesses will be willing to sign on to an offering that burns so much more fuel, sustainably produced or otherwise, against the expectations of environmentally responsible behavior.
Is there enough demand?
Boom is pitching Overture as a 65-88 seat jet (it initially launched as a 55 seat design). That is larger than the premium class seating available on nearly every commercial aircraft flying today, save for a handful of A380 or 777 layouts.
Even if United drops the capacity and installs Polaris beds on board (Scholl believes beds aren’t necessary because the flights will be short enough to sleep at the destination, not on board), will there be sufficient demand at the premium price to effectively double the premium traffic demand compared to any of United’s offerings today?
It is also worth noting that Boom’s latest position has the aircraft flying a M1.7, not the M2.2 previously pitched. Combined with more seats on board it is clear that the company is adjusting its expectations in hopes of delivering an aircraft that can meet the economic targets of airline customers as well as the technical challenges of supersonic travel.
Where can it fly?
United appears to be buying in to the Boom marketing position of connecting hundreds of cities around the globe with supersonic travel.
The vast majority of those markets, however, lack sufficient demand for such premium services. Factor in the restrictions around sonic booms over land and even more markets disappear.
The Overture program is also not included in the FAA’s noise standard guidelines, which could eventually create challenges. The company is “Actively engaged with the FAA” and expects to slide into the noise profiles as they expand to cover larger aircraft.
At best this product is about connecting a handful of major business markets separated almost entirely by ocean, not hundreds of destinations. That might be enough for a small fleet operating in niche markets, though the business case would be more challenging. But United’s initial order of 15+35 options seems oversized compared to, say, its current fleet of 767s.
A questionable timeline
Getting a new supersonic aircraft into service is no easy task. Boom is years behind schedule on getting its XB-1 demonstrator into the skies.
When the first XB-1 flight was planned for early 2020 the Overture program anticipated a 2025 first flight and 2027 entry in service. XB-1 “rolled out” last October but first flight remains elusive.
The company is tempering expectations on the timing with United, with entry into service now expected in 2029. Assuming the billions of dollars necessary for development can be found.
Billions to build
Fellow supersonic hopeful Aerion abruptly closed shop last month after nearly two decades of development, citing difficulty in raising funds to bring its AS2 supersonic business jet to life.
Boom acknowledges that getting Overture into development is a multi-billion dollar endeavor. Scholl has suggested $6 billion should be enough, though others believe the number to be higher. A successful XB-1 demo flight would help kick-start that fundraising, of course.
Finally, Boom still needs an engine to power the Overture jets. It is in discussions with Rolls-Royce about how that might come to pass, but no firm plans have been announced.
More on Boom's winding development path:
- An investment Boom from Japan Airlines
- Engine selection “core” to Boom Supersonic’s success
- Boom’s supersonic timing slips
- PaxEx Update: FTE Asia edition
- Behind the scenes with Boom Supersonic
- Supersonic sound standards set; Boom schedule slips
- Boom Supersonic picks an engine manufacturer (for further discussions)
- Virgin Galactic makes a move in supersonic travel
- United Airlines plans supersonic Boom with new order
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