FOR 27 YEARS Concorde embodies the glamor of the jet set. Yet its elegant delta wings were accompanied by the deafening noise of thirsty military engines; champagne was served in a cramped cabin with small seats; and cruising at twice the speed of sound, which roughly halved the time of an Atlantic crossing, cost double the regular business class fare. Worshipers shed tears after his farewell flight in 2003, following a fatal accident in 2000 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most business travelers shrug their shoulders.
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“Pick up where Concorde left off,” is how Blake Scholl, CEO of Boom Supersonic, describes Overture 1, the jet that the American startup is developing. It will propel up to 88 passengers 1.7 times faster than sound while avoiding the drawbacks of the Concorde. This calls on United Airlines. On June 3, he agreed to buy 15 planes, with an option for 35 more. JAL and Virgin Atlantic have options to acquire 30 between them. Mr Scholl promises that supersonic fares, once reserved for the very rich, will now be “for everyone” – or at least for those who can afford to travel by business jet on the same route. Better aerodynamics, materials and engines are intended to keep operating costs 75% lower than the Concorde. Civilian engines will propel the plane in relative silence and use sustainable fuel to avoid criticism from environmentalists. The cabin mockups appear suitably plush.
UBS, a bank, believes supersonic travel has a future. It estimates the cumulative size of the market to be between $ 80 billion and $ 280 billion by 2040, depending on regulatory hurdles and whether planes are delivered on time, on budget and performing as promised. Mr. Scholl envisions the higher end of that range, a potential market for 1,200 Overture 1 to $ 200 million each. Then he hopes to build bigger and bigger boats with lower fares and higher speeds. Spike, another American company with supersonic ambitions, is developing an 18-seat business jet that does not make much noise.
Is this pie in the sky? A distant engagement littered with caveats is good publicity for United and for Boom as he seeks more funding. It is unlikely that a lot of money has already changed hands. Overture 1 is not expected to enter service until 2029. Aerion, another company that hoped to build an 8-10-seat business jet, unexpectedly folded in May despite orders worth more than $ 11 billion and the support of Boeing, the American aeronautics giant.
National regulations banning supersonic speeds over land exclude travel through North America, home to many business travelers and most of the world’s business jets. Morgan Stanley, a bank, estimates that at $ 120 million, double the price of a similar subsonic plane, even the ultra-rich wouldn’t pay to cut a four-hour transatlantic trip. Tellingly, Boeing itself has no plans to go supersonic. Neither Airbus, its great European rival (which was involved in the Concorde project). The passenger-aircraft duopoly believes that a cheaper and cleaner flight is more important than speed. Breaking the sound barrier is still a long way off for the ordinary bettor. ■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Boom Time?” “