Supersonic passenger jets


Boom time


A flock of startups wants to break the sound barrier


For 27 years Concorde epitomised jet-setting glamour. Yet its elegant delta wings came with the ear-splitting noise of thirsty military-derived engines; champagne was served in a cramped cabin with small seats; and cruising at twice the speed of sound, which just about halved the time for an Atlantic crossing, cost twice the regular business-class fare. Devotees shed a tear after its farewell flight in 2003, following a fatal crash in 2000 and the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. Most business travellers shrugged.


“Picking up where Concorde left off” is how Blake Scholl, chief executive of Boom Supersonic, describes Overture 1, the jet which the American startup is developing. It will propel up to 88 passengers 1.7 times as fast as sound while avoiding Concorde’s drawbacks. This appeals to United Airlines. On June 3rd it 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 only for the very rich, will now be “for everyone”—or at least those who can afford to fly business on the same route. Better aerodynamics, materials and engines are intended to keep operating costs 75% below those of Concorde. Civilian engines will propel the aircraft in relative quiet and use sustainable fuel to head off criticism from environmentalists.

“青出于蓝而胜于蓝”,美国创业公司BoomSupersonic的首席执行官布莱克·肖尔(Blake Scholl)这样描述公司正在研发的飞机“1号序曲”(Overture 1)。它最多能搭载88名乘客,以1.7倍的音速飞行,同时还规避掉了协和式客机的不足之处。这一点对于美联航而言极具吸引力。6月3日,该公司同意购买15架飞机,还取得35架飞机的购买权。日本航空和维珍航空共拥有30架飞机的购买权。肖尔承诺,曾经只专供富人消费的超音速机票现在面向了“所有人”,或者至少是那些负担的起同样航线上商务舱消费的人群。“1号序曲”更符合空气动力学,材料更佳,引擎更强,因而运营成本比协和式飞机低75%。民用发动机让飞机在相对安静的环境中飞行,并会使用可持续燃料,以免遭到环保主义者的指责。

Mockups of the cabin look suitably plush.


UBS, a bank, thinks supersonic travel has a future. It puts the cumulative size of the market at between $80bn and $280bn by 2040, depending on regulatory hurdles and whether the planes are delivered on time, on budget and operate as promised. Mr Scholl is eyeing the upper end of that range, a potential market for 1,200 Overture 1s at $200m each. Then he hopes to make progressively bigger craft offering lower fares and higher speeds. Spike, another American firm with supersonic ambitions, is developing an 18-seat business jet that doesn’t make a loud boom.


Is this pie in the sky? A distant caveat-strewn commitment is good publicity for United and for Boom when it seeks more funding. It is unlikely that much cash has yet changed hands. Overture 1 is not set to enter service until 2029. Aerion, another firm that hoped to build an 8-10-seat business jet, unexpectedly folded in May despite orders worth more than $11bn and backing from Boeing, America’s giant aeroplane-maker.


National regulations banning supersonic speeds over land rule out trips across North America, home to lots of business travellers and most of the world’s business jets. Morgan Stanley, a bank, reckons that at $120m, double the price of a similar subsonic plane, even the ultra-rich wouldn’t pay to cut four hours from a transatlantic trip. Tellingly, Boeing itself has no plans to go supersonic. Nor has Airbus, its European arch-rival (which was involved in the Concorde project). The passenger-jet duopoly reckons that cheaper and cleaner flying is more important than speed. Breaking the sound barrier is still some way off for the ordinary punter.