Commercial aviation’s return to supersonic flying (for the first time since Concorde) received a major vote in confidence this week, as American Airlines and Boom Supersonic announced the airline’s agreement to purchase up to 20 Overture aircraft, with an option for an additional 40. American Airlines has paid a non-refundable deposit on the initial 20 aircraft and is the third airline to place an order for the jets, after United Airlines which ordered 15 last year.
What is the Overture?
Boom is developing a jet called the Overture that will be able to carry up to 80 passengers at nearly twice the speed of sound and can therefore cut transatlantic travel times by half.
The aircraft, with sleek ‘gull wings’ making it look like a modern-day “son of Concorde” will fly at Mach 1.7 over water — or twice the speed of today’s fastest commercial aircraft — with a range of 4,250 nautical miles. The manufacturer says the jet is optimised for speed, safety and sustainability, and is being designed to fly more than 600 routes around the world in as little as half the time.
The updated design for the Overture aircraft has a contoured fuselage and gull wings. The full-scale Overture will be 205 feet long, have a cruising altitude of 60,000 feet,
But the jet is still in the early stages of development. Boom recently unveiled a "refined' version of the aircraft, which it said has completed some wind tunnel tests. It has yet to conduct a test flight, however, and the first production test jets are not expected to roll off the line until 2025, and the aircraft won’t begin carrying passengers until at least the end of the decade — at the earliest.
The aircraft will have four engines, and Boom says the decision to work on a four-engine configuration was “after extensive R&D and efforts to understand the supply chain capabilities of our partners. Using four engines lets us shrink the size of each engine, allowing production to fall within current supply chain and manufacturing capabilities – all while reducing the noise levels of the aircraft”
The use of four engines instead of the originally planned three also keeps weight and temperature within existing technology constraints while allowing Overture to work within established supply chain and maintenance norms.
Which airlines have ordered the Overture?
The American Airlines deal builds on earlier commitments by United Airlines, Japan Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic – but with the latest order, American’s deal expands the supersonic start-up’s tally to 35 orders and 130 pre-orders and options. The aircraft sells for $200 million each at list prices.
Blake Scholl, the founder and chief executive of Boom, said: “We believe Overture can help American deepen its competitive advantage on network, loyalty and overall airline preference through the paradigm-changing benefits of cutting travel times in half.”
“What we’re really seeing is that supersonic is back, and it’s back in a mainstream way” he added.
Boom and the United States Air Force are developing custom Overture configurations for government executive transport.
What’s the main purpose of the jet?
Airlines have cracked the code to onboard luxury, flat-beds in business class, suites, showers, and even bunk-bed concept coming soon in Economy Class. But it still takes the same duration to get from A to B, unlike when Concorde was an option. Boom’s Overture will cut journey times – the main selling point of the jet. By its estimates, the Overture flying from London to Doha would take just 3 hours compared with 6.5 hours by current means. London to Miami would take just under five hours, versus the almost nine hours today. American Airlines say Boom Supersonic’s Overture would introduce an important new speed advantage to American’s fleet.
Will it be a lot more expensive than regular commercial air travel?
Neither Boom nor the airline customers have released expected prices, but Boom’s CEO Scholl previously said tickets would be “affordable”.
Derek Kerr, American’s chief financial officer, said: “Looking to the future, supersonic travel will be an important part of our ability to deliver for our customers. We are excited about how Boom will shape the future of travel both for our company and our customers.”
What about climate change considerations?
Environmental groups are concerned that faster speeds will equate to more pollution. The global aviation industry produces around 3 per cent of all human-induced CO2 emissions, but supersonic jets are known to be more polluting (as they require more fuel). For Boom, the Overture aircraft is designed to run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel, calming a sector under immense pressure to decarbonise. The company also aims to achieve net zero carbon dioxide by 2025 and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. Boom also says it “prioritises “circularity by repurposing used tooling, recycling components on the shop floor, and leveraging additive manufacturing techniques that result in less manufacturing waste and lighter, more fuel-efficient products”.
Boom is also testing new technologies that could muffle the sonic boom that occurs when a supersonic aircraft breaks the sound barrier.
Are there challenges ahead?
Immense challenges remain in the production of this Overture. Perhaps most challenging of all: Boom still has no engine manufacturer lined up for the Overture. UK-based Rolls-Royce, who have held discussions with Boom on powering the Overture, recently told US aerospace media The Air Current that the engine-maker “wouldn’t commit to a business relationship where the engine maker alone would fund the development of supersonic propulsion.” “Adding, “We’re not spending our dollars on new engine developments. Our new engine developments are around our business jet engines and around our UltraFan. That’s it.”
Assuming the company does secure an engine manufacturer to develop powerplants to enable the Overture to take flight, Boom must then meet industry-standard operating, performance, and safety requirements, and crucially: must obtain certification from foreign regulators and the US Federal Aviation Administration — a lengthy, forensic process that has delayed the delivery of even current aircraft models such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
787 deliveries were suspended over a year ago when the FAA wanted to assess potential flaws in the current model. It came at a time when the FAA pledged to be more active in the certification process of aircraft, following a damning report suggesting the FAA’s failure to properly ensure the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX – which suffered two fatal crashes within 5 months, leading to the tragic loss of hundreds of lives and triggering the worldwide grounding of Boeing’s best-selling short-haul model.
The FAA states on its website that it's currently working to establish new rules for supersonic aircraft, including allowable noise levels over land. Elsewhere, Nasa has put money into developing a "quiet" supersonic jet, called the X-59, in the hopes of passing that tech on to the commercial sector.
What’s next for Overture?
Boom will assemble, build and flight test Overture aircraft at the Overture Superfactory located at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“We’re going to make a significant announcement in the next few months,” Scholl said. “And it’s not just about engine technology, it’s also about the engine business model. There’s a lot of opportunity for innovation there.”
The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir