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Boom desires supersonic air travel for all, but can it actually deliver?

There is no shortage of aspiration in commercial aviation; after all, we couldn’t have developed heavier-than-air flight without dreamers. However, when it comes to raising the bar, Boom Supersonic is in a league of its own.

The startup based in Colorado is working to revive commercial supersonic flight, which has been dormant since the retirement of the Concorde in 2003. Unlike the exclusive Concorde, an engineering marvel only a few airlines ever operated, Boom is betting that their supersonic aircraft, Overture, would make such travel affordable for the masses.

Blake Scholl, the founder and CEO of Boom Supersonic, tells that the company’s big, bold goal is to make the first supersonic plane that tens of millions of people can fly on. In my opinion, the purpose of supersonic flight is to bring people from all over the globe together. Our ultimate goal is to provide everyone with access to supersonic travel on every route.

Boom hopes to launch Overture into commercial operation by 2029. This ambitious timeline may be difficult to achieve, but the firm has lately revealed some new details regarding its technology and partners that, in Scholl’s opinion, bring this vision closer to reality.

A difficult operation

Aiming to travel at a speed of Mach 1.7 and an altitude of 60,000 feet, Overture is built to accommodate 64 to 80 passengers. Overture would fly from London to New York in around three and a half hours, slashing travel time in half compared to leading widebody aircraft like the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A350.

Three airlines have already placed orders for the plane despite the fact that the first one won’t be available until 2026. There are a total of 130 orders from three different airlines: United Airlines, American Airlines, and Japan Airlines. Of these, 35 are non-refundable deposits and 95 are pre-orders, where payment has not yet been received.

According to Boom’s current schedule, the aircraft is expected to undergo its maiden flight in 2027 and receive its certification in 2029. However, despite the “aggressive” goals, Scholl says he is pleased with the company’s performance thus far. While “very complex,” he argues, “we don’t need an entirely new set of regulations in order to be certified” in comparison to electric aircraft or VTOL aircraft. Another commercial airliner, I see. It merely travels at a different rate of speed. From the standpoint of the regulatory bodies, however, the same safety standards and rules already exist; all that remains is to adhere to them and demonstrate compliance.

When completed in the middle of 2024, the planes will have been manufactured and tested at Boom’s “Superfactory,” a 62-acre facility in Greensboro, North Carolina. New agreements with suppliers were also revealed in July at the Paris Air Show; Aernnova will produce the wings for the Overture, Leonardo will produce the fuselage and wing box, and Aciturri will produce the tail section.

To paraphrase what Scholl says about employees who work on major Boeing and Airbus aircraft: “The general audience might not know all those names, but they are the same people who work with those aircraft.” We have removed the aircraft’s skin to reveal the intricate hydraulics, flying controls, landing gear, avionics, electrical power systems, and other components that are essential to the aircraft’s operation. To satisfy the strict certification criteria, we are developing everything to the best possible safety standards.

Renewable gasoline

Since supersonic planes need to travel at far greater speeds than regular aeroplanes, their engines must be constructed differently. Florida Turbine Technologies, whose engineers have worked on the supersonic engines of fighter jets including the Lockheed Martin F-22 and the F-35, collaborated with Boom on the development of the aircraft’s Symphony engine. Before last year, Boom had been collaborating on the project with Rolls-Royce, a major player in the engine manufacturing industry.

According to Scholl, noise is one of Concorde’s main downsides, therefore the designers of Symphony paid special attention to that aspect of the plane. “It’s designed for silent takeoffs and landings without sacrificing its supersonic efficiency,” he claims. That’s crucial, you know. And this is a major contrast to Concorde, which was widely known to be unwelcoming to the neighbourhoods surrounding airports. When we bring supersonic service to an airport, one of our hopes is that the locals will welcome the increased connectivity with open arms.

SAF, or Sustainable Aviation Fuel, is a type of jet fuel whose production processes promise to reduce carbon emissions by up to 80%; the engine is intended to run fully with this fuel, as recommended by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Boom is likewise dedicated to ending all of its emissions of greenhouse gases by the year 2040.

Overture’s restricted capacity means that its emissions per passenger will be far greater than those of conventional airliners, making it difficult to convince the public that supersonic flight is environmentally friendly. The SAF infrastructure is also falling behind.

Another issue is the sonic boom, which means Overture can only go supersonic over the waters rather than over land due to present rules. With the hope of modernising these rules, NASA is developing a supersonic plane with a significantly muted sonic boom. “Sonic boom mitigation is absolutely a part of the future,” says Scholl, but it won’t be ready in time to help Boom. Not for our first aeroplane, as that would go against our policy of not introducing any new restrictions, but for our second aeroplane in the future, we will look to learn what we can from NASA’s effort.

Are there any upcoming turbulences?

According to Richard Evans, a senior consultant at aviation consultancy firm Cirium, the success of any airline that operates Overture will depend on whether or not it will use it as frequently as it would use a conventional long-haul aircraft, which is between 4,000 and 5,000 hours per year. He explains that this is necessary in order to spread out the high initial cost of ownership per passenger seat. Concorde’s utilisation rates were never even close to that; instead, they averaged closer to 1,000 hours per year. Since Boom’s planes are probably going to be restricted to a handful of high-yield routes, it will be very difficult to achieve this objective.

Evans says it will also be hard to fly people as soon as 2029. He compares it to the delayed Boeing 777-9, which is a version of an existing plane and not a brand-new one, and whose development will have taken 12 years by the time it goes into service. Even if Boom is able to attract the necessary billions of dollars, the certification process will take much longer than six years, according to Evans.

Last but not least, he believes it’s unclear how the supersonic industry would contribute to aviation’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Compared to travelling the same trip in a different aircraft type, he claims, “flying SAF or conventional uses much more fuel per passenger.” “Even if 100% SAF can be used, it takes SAF away from being used in a more efficient way.”

According to Richard Aboulafia, managing director at aircraft aviation consultancy firm AeroDynamic Advisory, another cause for concern is the fact that no major engine manufacturer —such as General Electric, Rolls-Royce, or Pratt & Whitney—is working with Boom. In my opinion, Boom is a funny experiment into the amount of money people are willing to put into entertaining sketches and models. Everything about it screams “seriously overfunded wishful thinking,” from the lack of a serious engine to that bizarre and unexplainable huge overhaul a few years back.

Scholl says, “It’s about listening to customers, and about sustainability,” in reference to the redesign that reduced the cruise speed and boosted the passenger capacity. Our wind tunnel tests showed that if we reduced our speed to Mach 1.7 from Mach 2.2, we could save 40% on gasoline. To further reduce our carbon footprint, we may fly at a lower altitude. Airlines have requested that we construct the largest aircraft possible in terms of passenger capacity, indicating that they anticipate a high demand for this service. To accommodate additional travellers, we upgraded from three to four engines.

Overture’s capacity of 80 people is lower than Concorde’s average of 100, but according to Scholl, the experience will be very different. Concorde was a fantastic feat of engineering. But passengers who have flown in it tell me they enjoyed the speed but aren’t raving about the comfort.

To that end, we’re designing a jet with unprecedented luxury. Our strategy begins with the boarding process: our door is 10 inches taller than Concorde’s and 1 inch taller than those on narrowbody planes. Cathedral ceilings, measuring more than two metres (about eight feet) in height, characterise the front cabin. On each sides of the aisle, there are two window seats.

Overhead bins will become under-seat storage when the fuselage tapers in the back, reducing the cabin to one seat on each side. According to Scholl, “the best seats in the house” are located towards the rear of the aircraft.

We are giving special attention to the comfort of our passengers. We frequently bring in different sized passengers and flight crews to find out what they enjoy. Whether you’re looking to get work done or kick back and relax, we aim to provide an environment that encourages both. It’s going to be a great method to go through the air.

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