New York: The Eternal Disappointment of the Return of Supersonic Travel

Air travel is about to get a hell of a lot faster — at least that’s what the headlines say. “American Airlines to buy supersonic jets amid clamor for ultra-fast travel,” declared the Washington Post on Wednesday morning. “World’s fastest airliner ‘Overture’ to usher in new era of supersonic travel,” the New York Post proclaimed. They were pegged to American Airlines’ announcement that it had placed orders for 20 supersonic Overture jets from a start-up called Boom. The planes will carry up to 80 passengers at Mach 1.7. Better yet, they’ll burn a special fuel that will make them carbon neutral.

It’s all very exciting, if it happens. But there are many reasons to believe it won’t — not least that, for years, similar claims have continuously come up empty. “It’s just PR,” says aviation analyst Brian Foley. Supersonic air transportation is, he says, “still a long way off,” adding, “It’s fun to dream.”

To hear Boom tell it, the project is moving along at a blistering pace, and later this year the company says it will break ground on a factory in North Carolina. “We’ll begin production in 2024, with the first Overtures coming off the line in 2025,” Boom president Kathy Savitt says. Flight testing and certification will follow in short order. “We estimate that the very first passengers will be able to fly an Overture by the end of 2029,” she says.

Boom has made similarly ambitious claims before. Back in 2016, the company said it would be making three-hour transatlantic flights by 2023. In the meantime, it hasn’t even flown a scale model. “It’s always a decade in the future,” says Foley.

The reality is that developing any new airframe is a vastly expensive and lengthy process, so much so that even the aviation heavyweights approach it with trepidation. The A350 took Airbus a decade and $15 billion to take from the drawing board to the runway. Add in the technical challenges of supersonic flight and you’re climbing an even higher mountain. Industry analyst Richard Aboulafia has speculated that a project like Boom could cost $20 billion to develop.

Aircraft designer and longtime industry observer Peter Garrison says those hurdles put him in the skeptics camp, “just from the knowledge of how hard it is to bring a project like this to fruition. As with all such ambitious projects, dates of critical milestones keep getting pushed back and the costs keep climbing.”

A big part of the challenge is developing an engine. Flying supersonic is technically challenging and requires an especially tough and durable power plant. Because no other supersonic commercial planes exist, there is no off-the-shelf engine Boom could simply hang under the wing. “It will be a modified engine specifically for us,” Savitt acknowledges.

Rolls-Royce, which has been in talks with Boom, told the aerospace publication the Air Current earlier this year that it wouldn’t pocket the development expense. “If Boeing or Airbus comes out with a new product, the engine and avionics providers will pay a lion’s share of the development in anticipation of income further down the line,” Foley says. “But this is more of a niche program.”

Even if Boom could build and certify the Overture, its customers would still need to be able to operate the jet profitably. Given the high fuel and maintenance costs of such a jet, seats would necessarily be a high-ticket item. A Concorde seat sold for about $20,000 in today’s dollars. Even if Savitt is correct in estimating that the Overture will be able to operate profitably at 75 percent of that fare or less, that’s still a lot of money for a minimum fare given that the plane will be allowed to fly supersonic only over oceans, since the sonic boom would annoy anyone on the ground.

Finally, there’s the claim that the Overture will be carbon neutral. Boom says the plane will run on “sustainable aviation fuel,” or SAF, a catchall term that includes biofuel and synthetic hydrocarbons captured from the atmosphere. But the simple fact is that once a manufacturer sells a plane to an airline, it has no say over what kind of fuel it burns. SAF, says Foley, “is not plentiful, it’s not available everywhere, and it’s extremely expensive. Given that the airlines are all cost conscious, that’ll be a real decision tree for them.”

The daunting challenges of building a supersonic transport have already doomed another start-up that was trying to do the same thing. Last year, Aerion Supersonic, a venture backed by Boeing, closed its doors after running out of money. Another, Spike Aerospace, has put its efforts on hold.

For his part, Garrison says his disappointment in the past failures of these projects is tempered by the knowledge that, even if they did ultimately work out, they would in no way have benefited people like him. “It’s just to make some rich people happier,” he says.

18 thoughts on “New York: The Eternal Disappointment of the Return of Supersonic Travel”

  1. Jeff – Using comments here to ask re MH370 – were you even contacted for the recent History Channel documentary? They seemed to completely ignore any discussion of the basic technical details of what was turned off and went back on again, and the resulting implications. Apologies if you covered your thoughts on it and I missed it.

  2. @DG, Hi Daniel, sorry for the slow response. Yes, I was contacted by them, but I could tell that it was going to be pointless; to grapple with MH370 requires a high degree of rigor and they clearly weren’t going to go in that direction at all. Frankly, one of the major problems with media coverage of MH370 is that outlets lack the expertise to sort the wheat from the chaff and so wind up contributing to the fog of misinformation.

  3. Hi Peter, I used to get notifications when people posted comments but I think they’ve been going to the spam folder or something… sorry about that.

    At any rate, regarding your question about the Lepas research, reading the article made me smile. This paragraph in particular:

    “”Unfortunately for crash investigators, the new, faster Lepas growth rates suggest that the large (36 mm) Lepas found on the missing Malaysian Airline flight MH370 wreckage at Reunion Island—16 months after the aircraft was believed to have crashed in 2014—were much younger than previously realized,” he said. “These Lepas probably settled on wreckage at least halfway across the Indian Ocean, and nowhere near the crash site.”

    This is exactly what I’ve been saying for a long time. The age of the barnacles found on the Réunion debris, and the temperature in which they grew, suggest that they started life quite close to Réunion. Which is quite puzzling if you assume the plane went down on the 7th arc.

  4. @Jeff Wise: thanks for your comment. I thought I’d ask for your thoughts since you are the barnacles expert here.

    Isn’t it possible that the barnacles didn’t start to grow immediately after the crash but only halfway across the Indian Ocean (just like the article says) … OR … that they DID attach immediately, but died for some reason (e.g. temperature) so that a new/younger generation of barnacles started to grow later on ?

  5. Peter,
    Yes, if the flaperon really did result from a crash in the southern Indian Ocean, then presumably somehow either they didn’t attach at first, or the first generation all died, for instance by being eaten by a sea turtle. Thus, it’s not impossible to explain away this data. But I consider it to be a part of a lot of other evidence that points in a similar direction.
    Another also involved Lepas on the flaperon. When investigators put the flaperon in water at a test facility in Toulouse, they found that it floated half out of the water. (Photos of this can be seen in the final accident report.) If the flaperon floated naturally, it’s hard to see how it could have accumulated Lepas on its entire surface, since these only grow under the water.

  6. Jeff, thanks for your explanations. In my opinion, the barnacles are an “unsafe” measure, because there are so many factors which are hard to ascertain. For instance, the seas are very rough in the SIO, so even when floating, I assume the flaperon would have been constantly wet on both sides.

  7. Wrong thread I know but I just watched this about mh370 and had to post to ask. Do you have any info on this phone call (mentioned at the end) before takeoff? It’s the first I’d heard about it!

    My new working theory ~ there was a planned attack, likely by the pilot, but he couldn’t go through with it and had already killed the passengers, so had no other way out.
    That all falls apart the second I think about where it crashed though, and I’m sure science could poke holes in it lol.

    Anyway, thanks Jeff

  8. Peter, In isolation, one could imagine that there could be some unknown set of circumstances that could innocently give rise to the condition of the barnacles as they were found. What makes me suspicious is that so many other pieces of evidence also raise suspicions. But at this point it’s clear that in the absence of definitive evidence I’m not going to change anyone’s mind.

  9. Hi Laura,
    Thanks for your comment. I’ve heard about that call, I don’t think it’s suspicious in and of itself, unless someone could identify that it was from someone nefarious or something like that.
    Your working theory is a popular one, much of my writing about MH370 has been to explain that there are profound problems with it.

  10. > But at this point it’s clear that in the absence of definitive evidence
    > I’m not going to change anyone’s mind.

    Jeff, I’m openminded and don’t have any real conviction (one way or the other), because all theories seem to have at least one weak point.

  11. Hi Jeff,
    In the video it says the phone/sim card was purchased by a woman using a fake ID, and this was the only call ever made from it (that does seem suspicious). Although, it could be a case of an affair perhaps.
    It also said that the Malaysian government has since found the identity of this woman but won’t release her real name.

    I have read everything you’ve written about MH370, and I do agree with your theory. I have never believed that it went down so close to Australia, maybe I’m naïve, but I would expect that our military would have some evidence if MH370 was travelling through our air space.

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