United Airlines has agreed to purchase 15 supersonic aircraft from Boom Supersonic, with an option to expand that order to 35 jets, the companies announced on Thursday. That agreement is still subject to change, however, depending on the outcome of United’s safety testing and also Boom’s ability to deliver on its promises, despite never having built or flown a fully supersonic jet before.
If Boom’s Overture jets pass inspection, they are scheduled to be rolled out in 2025, flying in 2026 and expected to carry passengers by 2029. At that point, Boom claims its supersonic jets will eventually be able to fly from New York. to London – normally a seven-hour flight – in just 3.5 hours, or Los Angeles to Sydney – usually a 15-hour journey – in six hours and 45 minutes. Tickets cost $5,000 per seat.
“Boom’s vision for the future of commercial aviation, combined with the industry’s most robust route network in the industry, will provide business and leisure travelers with access to a great flying experience,” said Scott Kirby, CEO of United.
It’s the latest deal for Boom, the startup that has focused on reinvigorating commercial supersonic air travel. In addition to United, the company has contracts or a memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce and the United States Air Force. Boom has raised $240 million in funding and fulfilled pre-orders from Virgin Group (which is also working on its own supersonic jet) and Japan Airlines.
To be sure, Boom has only just unveiled its first full XB-1 demonstration aircraft, which is expected to make its inaugural flight in 2021. At 27 meters in length, the XB-1 is a scaled-down version of the full production model that Boom hopes to have ready for passengers by 2029. The prototype will only accommodate the pilot, while the commercial version will eventually accommodate up to 88 passengers and crew.
The demonstrator is expected to reach speeds of Mach 1.3 thanks to its three J85-15 engines, manufactured by General Electric primarily for military aircraft. In comparison, the full Overture jet will be 205 feet long, have a cruising altitude of 60,000 feet and reach speeds of Mach 1.7.
Both companies claim that the jets will be “net zero carbon” from day one [and] optimized to run on 100 percent sustainable jet fuel.” But neither gave additional details about what kind of fuel they would use or how they would achieve net-zero carbon emissions.
Environmental groups fear that higher speeds will lead to more pollution of the environment. The global aviation industry produces about 2 percent of all human-caused CO2 emissions, but supersonic aircraft are known to be much more polluting. Boom says it will aim to be carbon neutral, but simply put, it takes more fuel to go faster.
Boom is behind schedule and has pledged to begin flight testing by 2017 in hopes of carrying real passengers by 2020. Now that timeline has been pushed back nearly a decade. No supersonic commercial jet has been in service since Concorde, built by French aerospace company Aérospatiale and British Aircraft Corporation, was launched. retired after 27 years of service in 2003. Concorde was a gas guzzler and a money loser for Airbus.
Boom is also testing new technologies that can muffle the sonic boom that occurs when a supersonic aircraft breaks the sound barrier. These cannonballs prompted Congress to ban supersonic fighter jets from flying over American soil in 1973. But in October 2018, President Trump said signed an invoice instructing the Federal Aviation Administration to consider lifting the ban. It’s unclear where President Joe Biden, who has made infrastructure and climate change a hallmark of his early days in office, on supersonic travel.