United Airlines made a big splash Thursday with an order for up to 50 Boom Supersonic jets, reviving hopes for ultra-speedy air travel that could cut longhaul international flight times in half.
United's order calls for 15 Boom Overture airliners from the Colorado-based startup, with an option to order up to 35 more. United said the Overture jet's Mach 1.7 speeds would allow them to fly from New York to London in just three and a half hours, not seven, or cut the flight time from San Francisco to Tokyo from more than 11 hours to just six hours.
United said its order was contingent on Boom meeting all safety, operational, and sustainability requirements, including a promise that it would be 100% carbon neutral thanks to alternative fuels, a hefty promise given the exorbitant carbon emissions of supersonic flight. Their plans call for the plane to roll off manufacturing lines by 2025, start flying by 2026, and enter into service in United colors by 2029.
It's an ambitious goal for a supersonic plane that hasn't yet been manufactured – let alone flown or achieved the necessary and rigorous safety approvals. It would be the first supersonic airliner to enter commercial service since British Airways and Air France retired the Concorde in 2003.
“Boom's vision for the future of commercial aviation, combined with the industry's most robust route network in the world, will give business and leisure travelers access to a stellar flight experience,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in a statement. “Our mission has always been about connecting people and now working with Boom, we'll be able to do that on an even greater scale.”
But Will it Ever Fly?
This is the $1 billion question.
There’s a reason the Concorde, the last successful supersonic jet, fell out of favor almost two decades ago: The economics of supersonic flight just don’t add up. And that's truer than ever today.
While everyone would love shorter flight times, what they care about most is a cheap ticket. The airline business is focused almost entirely on lowering costs, not on speed. Since the Concorde disappeared from the skies, ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit, Frontier, and even transatlantic carriers like WOW Air or Norwegian have reshaped the industry.
Making supersonic travel affordable is difficult to achieve on the small, sleek jets required to fly at the speed of sound, though Boom talks a big game about how its fuel efficiency will fix where the Concorde failed. Add in the fact that Boom's Overture jet has not yet flown – and won't for years – and there’s reason to doubt that it will ever hit the skies – let alone fly for United.
Still, United's move is a big vote of confidence in supersonic travel. United is a marquee airline with international pedigree, easily the biggest order to date in the renewed push to revive supersonic flights.
But an order is not a guarantee. Many other airlines placed orders in the Concorde in the 1960s and 1970s only to cancel them years later, including Pan Am, TWA, Singapore Airlines, and many others. United itself ordered six of the jets.
It canceled that order before the Concorde ever hit the skies.
Lead photo courtesy of United