If you thought supersonic passenger travel died with the retirement of the Concorde fleet in 2003, get ready for what one company—and Richard Branson—thinks could be the launch of a new age in which people fly from New York to London in three and a quarter hours for business class prices.
Today, Boom Supersonic, a Denver-based startup and Y Combinator alumni, unveiled the design of the XB1, a one-third-size version of the 45-seat plane it expects to put in the skies by the early 2020s. The so-called "Baby Boom" is built using most of the same principles and systems as Boom’s planned 165-foot production plane, and is expected to make its first flight by the end of next year.
While it would be tempting to dismiss any outfit’s attempt to restart the supersonic aviation industry, Boom CEO Blake Scholl is holding a hand with several aces.
First, the Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic's manufacturing arm, has an option on the first ten planes off Boom's lines. That pact will also give Boom access to the Spaceship Company's engineering, design, manufacturing, and flight test support services.
"Richard [Branson] has long expressed interest in developing high-speed flight and building high-speed flight R&D through Virgin Galactic and our manufacturing organization, the Spaceship Company," the Virgin Group said when the contract was signed. "It is still early days and just the start of what you'll hear about our shared ambitions and efforts.
In a release, Branson said a bit more about why he wanted to get the first shot at Boom's initial planes.
"I have long been passionate about aerospace innovation and the development of high-speed commercial flights," Branson said. "As an innovator in the space, Virgin Galactic’s decision to work with Boom was an easy one."
At the same time, Boom is touting the results of an evaluation of its business prospects by aviation analysts at Boyd Group International (BGI) that suggests if the production plane can deliver on its expected price and ticket costs, there’s likely to be worldwide demand for at least 1,300 of the $200 million planes. There were never more than 14 Concordes in operation.
"In key business class markets—such as trans-Atlantic—it is projected that the new airliner will have enormous airline demand," BGI wrote in its report. "It is not a further evolution of existing aircraft. Instead, it offers [an] entirely new set of air travel metrics, and a new product offering for major international airlines."
Finally, Scholl asserts he’s confident that the people he’s assembled from some of the world’s most accomplished aviation stalwarts have the expertise to pull off what’s never been done before—make supersonic travel affordable, and profitable, at a global scale.
"These aren’t kids out of school monkeying around in CAD," Scholl said of his team of SpaceX, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin veterans.
There is every reason to be skeptical of the notion. After all, the world’s lasting memory of supersonic planes is probably the fiery and tragic crash of Air France flight 4590 in 2000 outside Paris, which killed 113 people including four on the ground.
But that’s not what killed the Concorde program, Scholl argues. Rather, it was pure economics—the two carriers that operated the European-made planes, Air France and British Airways, couldn’t make money with the famous aircraft with the futuristic sharp noses. They were gas-guzzlers and there simply weren’t enough people willing to pay the equivalent of $20,000 in today’s money to shave a few hours off their flights across the pond.
That dynamic is out the window now, thanks to modern aerodynamics engineering, computer modeling, advanced materials, and the promise of vastly increased fuel-efficiency, Scholl contends.
By utilizing advanced engineering design, carbon-fiber composite materials, and the same turbofan engines used on Boeing 787 Dreamliners, Boom is promising to fly passengers at Mach 2.2 from San Francisco to Tokyo, today an 11-hour flight, in just five-and-a-half. That makes it possible for the first time, Scholl said, for someone to make the trip and back in one 24-hour period rather than the three days that are currently required. Similarly, a businessperson could catch an early morning flight in New York for a meeting in London and be back home the same day. Today, that flight is seven hours each way.
Boom is expecting airlines to charge around $5,000 for tickets aboard its all business-class planes rather than the $20,000 equivalent that Concorde passengers paid.
The Concorde flew at Mach 2.0. At Mach 2.2, or 1,451 miles an hour, the plane will be fast enough "that it doesn’t save you hours, but changes what you can do in a day," Scholl brags.
While BGI lauds Boom's business plan, it does note that the company's plane is not suited for every market, thanks to local concerns about sonic booms. That suggests the aircraft would be ideal for routes over oceans since, BGI wrote, "it is assumed...that all supersonic flying would be done over water." As a result, passengers based in large American cities like Dallas, Chicago, and Denver, would likely not benefit from the planes.
To hear Scholl tell it, one of the Concorde’s biggest failings was its massive fuel consumption. The problem, he argues, is that at the time of the retired plane’s development, its creators had to rely on wind tunnel tests to find its optimal design, tests that were expensive and which took several months. That limited the number of designs that could be considered—resulting in an airplane that while sexy, was simply too expensive to operate.
Today, though, aviation engineers can turn to virtual wind tunnel simulation software that lets them run a test in 30 minutes for little costs. That means that the Boom team has been able to try out 1,000 different possible designs, settling on the approach that the company hopes will finally make supersonic travel affordable.
Boom is using designs that makes its planes lighter and boosts their aerodynamic efficiency, relying on a principle called "area ruling" that minimizes the plane’s peak cross-sectional area and utilizes a skinnier fuselage where the wings stick out, as well as a system previously found only on the military’s famous SR-71 Blackbird in which a little bit of the wing extends all the way to the plane’s nose.
The planes will also use the same kind of engines found on Boeing’s Dreamliner in conjunction with an air intake system that maximizes propulsion.
The Baby Boom, while looking somewhat different than the full-scale plane, will operate on the same aerodynamic principles, and the idea is for next year’s first flights to quickly demonstrate the airworthiness of the design and lead as fast as possible to production of the full-scale planes and, eventually, passenger flights.
Scholl said that the biggest challenges Boom faces are neither technological or regulatory, nor the ability to raise capital. Rather, it’s simply the company’s ability to execute on its plan and ensure that its planes are able to fly safely as designed.
BGI also notes that Boom's planes really only make economic sense for people who can fly nonstop to their destination. "Markets that require supporting connecting traffic entail more travel time," BGI wrote, "which materially erodes the advantages of the speed the Boom aircraft offers."
Further, BGI said it's unclear how the airline industry would adapt to the introduction of a plane like Boom's. "There is uncertainty regarding competitive responses between airlines operating the Boom airliner and those choosing to keep premium passengers on existing-technology airliners," BGI wrote. "The business-class and first-class margins on the wide-body flights may allow carriers to slash fares to keep customers off airlines operating the Boom airliner."
Despite those potential market concerns, Boom has caught the eye of investors. The company has taken investment money from five different funds, though it won’t say how much. But Scholl says one of the company’s most important business advantages is how much of its capital will come from airlines that pay up front for planes rather than front investors who end up holding equity. While the company isn’t divulging the financial terms of its deal with Virgin, Scholl said "We look at them as a customer more than as an investor."
Given that supersonic travel, although stoking the romantic imaginations of many aviation buffs, was a business failure in the past, it’s hard to predict whether Boom’s model can succeed, and we won’t know the answer for many years. So Boom may be nothing more than yet another technology venture with an exciting idea and no way to actually deliver on its vision.
But Scholl isn’t the least bit worried about that being Boom’s outcome, particularly in light of the Boyd Group’s estimate of market demand for more than 1,000 planes based on an evaluation of its business plan and technological promise. Still, even he knows that until airlines have the planes and are profitably flying passengers to their same-day meetings and then home again, the world will be skeptical.
Looking further down the line, though, he said that if the initial 45-passenger plane is a hit, the design is meant to scale up to a larger version. That is expected to make travel even cheaper, and therefore more attractive to more people because as the planes get bigger, their efficiency improves and the price goes down.
"The more people who go more often," Scholl said, "it becomes a virtuous cycle….We have a line of sight to do economy-[class] prices. That’s a decades-long mission, but that’s where we’re headed and there’s nothing impossible about it."