- Supersonic consumer flight could be back on the menu, with test flights in 2021.
- The technically brilliant Concorde went out of business in 2003, with low demand and sky-high costs.
- Startup Boom claims to be carbon neutral.
An American startup is set to begin testing a “new Concorde” supersonic jet next year. But what’s really changed since the Concorde discontinued service in 2003? And who, exactly, is clamoring for a new version?
Denver-based Boom Supersonic says it will unveil XB-1, a 1:3 scale model of its planned supersonic jet, Overture, in October, with test flights to follow in 2021. Boom’s messaging of “bringing more people, places, and cultures” into physical reach with supersonic travel is a curious one in this particular moment in human history.
Supersonic travel has only ever been the territory of the ultra-wealthy, to the point where the Concorde simply wasn’t profitable, even with tickets that averaged $12,000 round trip long before the transatlantic voyages ended.
Smithsonian’s Bob van der Linden is now the Curator of Air Transportation and Special Purpose Aircraft. In 2004, he wrote in Smithsonian Air & Space that while the Concorde began as an ambitious global project, it didn’t stay that way:
“Eventually, the tough airline marketplace forced Air France and British Airways to cut back their already limited service; routes from London and Paris to Washington, D.C., Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Miami, Singapore, and other locations were cut, leaving only transatlantic service to New York. And even on most of these flights, Concordes flew only half full, with many of the passengers flying as guests of the airlines or as upgrades.”
By the end, the Concorde line was little more than a transatlantic shuttle service for corporate friends. And that’s sad, because the Concorde jet itself is a marvel of engineering, on a timeline that beggars disbelief: the first powered flight in 1903, the first experimental supersonic flight in 1947, and a full service supersonic airline that started flying in 1976. We’re certainly not in civilian rocket cars on the ground; hell, we can’t even persuade Americans to support public transit infrastructure.
There’s a broad context unawareness in hyping faster-than-ever international travel during the global COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. But besides this poor timing, after the end of the Concorde in 2003, are we ready for the next generation of supersonic passenger flight?
Boom claims its airliner is carbon-neutral, and its business plan has attracted major money. Or, at least, it did before all airlines began experiencing an extreme downturn. “Before the pandemic, Boom had garnered at least $6 billion worth of pre-orders for the aircraft, which has a price tag of $200 million, with buyers included Virgin Group and Japan Airlines, which invested $10 million in the company in 2017,” CNN reports.
For its carbon-neutral fuel, Boom has teamed with Prometheus, another startup that’s light on public-facing information. If Boom is right that consumer demand is at an “all time high” for supersonic international travel—supersonic flight is illegal over the U.S. and could not replace high-speed rail, for example, without legislative intervention—and it has indeed found a true carbon-neutral way to power flights that used to use a ton of fuel per seat, maybe the future really is in supersonic jets.
Businesspeople may very well line up with thousands of dollars apiece for everything they’re Zooming right now around the world. If not, well, a half-full flight is safer anyway.