Can New Supersonic Commercial Airliner Avoid the Mistakes of the Concorde?

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD



United Airlines wants to bring supersonic speeds back to commercial aviation by 2029. 

The Chicago-based aviation juggernaut announced plans to purchase 15 supersonic, zero-emissions jetliners from Boom Supersonic, with a rollout in 2025, a first flight in 2026, and the first passengers in 2029.

But a mountain of technological and legislative hurdles stand in the way of supersonic’s triumphant return to commercial aviation.

Naturally, the merest hint of mach-anything in conjunction with passenger aircraft evokes the Concorde, an engineering marvel that was possibly a bit ahead of its time.

The Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde was a turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner that could ferry 128 people at speeds of up to Mach 2.04 (1,354 mph), cutting transatlantic flight times in half (but at 30x the cost of conventional aircraft – in 1997, a roundtrip ticket from New York to London apparently ran about $7,995).

The extreme speeds also caused a litany of heating and structural issues. Windows and panels were warm to the touch by flight’s end, and the frame’s aluminum alloy, Hiduminium R.R. 58, could only sustain 261°F, which limited the craft’s top speed. Passengers also reported unusually high cabin noise (and noise pollution outside the craft forced it to avoid certain routes that sent it over populated areas).

The Concorde entered service in 1976, and stayed aloft for more than 25 years, before the crash of Air France Flight 4590 in 2000 and the general fallout from 9/11 led it to retire in 2003.

And for their part, Boom Supersonic seems keenly aware of their predecessor’s legacy.

“This is a much larger and more comfortable experience than Concorde,” Boom Supersonic CEO Blake Scholl told The New York Post. “It’s been half a century. We can do better.”

The interesting part of that is Boom Supersonic’s “Overture” will only seat 65 to 88 passengers (vs. Concorde’s 92 to 128), which could help alleviate cramping complaints of the earlier supersonic airliner.

Scholl also pegs the Overture’s operating costs as 75% lower than the Concorde, leading to ticket prices that are a tad more feasible (Business Class fares, or about $4,964).

Naturally, the Overture will still be aimed at the luxury market, with the Concorde’s strengths -- New York to London in 3.5 hours – and (hopefully) fewer of its weaknesses.

Of course, one of the Overture’s biggest selling points is the idea that it’ll run on 100% sustainable organic-based aviation fuel, making them the world’s first large commercial aircraft with net-zero carbon emissions on day one (and tying in with United’s plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050). That could go a long towards assuaging environmental concerns since supersonic jets use a lot more fuel than conventional aircraft.

There’s also the issue of noise pollution. Back in 2016, NASA claimed that a “quiet supersonic airplane” was possible, but “quiet” is probably relative. Still, new research by the agency on its X-59 QueSST program could reduce the Concorde’s ear-splitting 105-decibel “boom” to a more manageable 75 decibels, which could in turn, open up routes over populated areas.

United has committed to purchasing 15 of Boom’s Overture craft, with the option for 35 more, and the Colorado-based aviation startup will have to hit a plethora of milestones, starting with the first test flights five years from now.

And if the history of military and commercial aviation projects has taught us anything, it’s that delays and cost-overruns are almost inevitable.