Can A Young Startup Bring Back Commercial Supersonic Air Travel?

Imagine getting on a plane in London, taking a three-hour nap, and then waking up in New York City. For the start-up company Boom Supersonic, founded in 2014, this quick trip shouldn’t just be a high-flying dream for a limited amount of moneyed passengers. Boom Supersonic aims to bring supersonic air travel — that is, planes that fly above the speed of sound — to the masses, a practice that is now unheard of in commercial aviation. Most long-haul flights on giant airliners like Airbus’ A380 and Boeing’s 747 cruise at 550 miles per hour (885 kilometers per hour); Boom Supersonic’s lightning-fast planes trounce that number by almost 1,000 MPH with a cruising speed of 1,451 MPH — just shy of Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound. The plane has the capability of reaching Mach 2.2.

The thought of ripping through the air so quickly, of leapfrogging around the globe in the time it takes for a short trip by car, is undeniably gripping. Although like any startup Boom Supersonic’s success remains up in the air, some early signs indicate good things for the company. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson publicly backed the company. Boom Supersonic claims to have 76 orders for its planes, which could theoretically begin flight in 2023 following many years of test flights and improvements to their small (and forthcoming) fleet. The startup’s website promises “supersonic speeds” at “mainstream fares.” Like any good startup, Boom Supersonic pitches big. Should it succeed, it would become a major player in commercial aviation.

Pixabay.com

Just below the part of Boom Supersonic’s website where it affirms its commitment to low-cost supersonic travel, an important name is mentioned: the Concorde. For many people alive today, supersonic air travel is not an exciting new idea discovered by a small company; instead, it’s a dream that died with the advent of the 21st century. From 1976 until 2003, an airplane called the Concorde zipped through the skies at just over Mach 2, marking the debut of commercial supersonic air travel. Despite being internationally renowned, the Concorde didn’t allow for wide access to its lightning-fast flights. Tickets for the plane typically amounted to $12,000 USD round-trip, which in 2017 dollars amounts to just north of $22,000 USD. Only British Airways and Air France operated the planes, limited to high-volume routes like London Heathrow to New York’s JFK Airport, or Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Airport to Washington DC’s Dulles Airport. The plane’s seat capacity capped off at 130 passengers, well below that of the mega-airliners that debuted during the Concorde’s halcyon days, such as the Boeing 767, which can transport as many as 375 passengers. Yet if access to the Concorde was limited, its appeal is universal. Who enjoys sitting in a cramped airliner seat for eight hours or more? Plus, how many people can say they’ve flown at the speed of sound? An undoubtable luxury good, the Concorde pushed the limits of what people expected out of commercial flying. That is, until it took its final flight to some but not significant international fanfare in late 2003.

Concord SST (Credit: Flickr)

Cities like San Francisco, Austin, and Denver are replete with start-ups, many of which anchor their business models on flashy but ultimately been-there-done-that ideas. Consider Chariot, an upstart that like Boom Supersonic began in 2014: the company proclaims that it is “reinventing mass transit” by offering individuals the chance to buy rides on shuttle vans that follow pre-assigned routes. In other words, Chariot “reinvented” the city bus, and naturally the only difference is that it’s more expensive. An anecdotal but telling example: in Austin, Texas, one of the few cities where Chariot is beta testing, it costs $7 USD for two rides, whereas a city bus trip will set you back $2.50. I mapped out a frequent commute I take on the city bus in the Chariot interface and found the time difference to be negligible. Even if Chariot got me there faster, it wouldn’t be worth almost three times as much as a city bus commute.

Should Boom Supersonic fail to live up to its intentions, it would become the Chariot of Concordes: an idea that sounds new but only modifies a familiar mode of transport. The distinction between Concordes and city buses, however, is that for however slow the latter sometimes may be, they do work. The Concorde lived up to its speedy reputation, but it did so at the cost of massive budget losses for both British Airways and Air France. Could Boom Supersonic avoid the pratfalls of the Concorde and truly deliver supersonic travel to the masses?

The story of Boom Supersonic, which still has yet to unfold, exists at the cross-section of tech, aviation, and finance. On paper the idea of commercial supersonic flight has its appeals: no long hours spent in mediocre-to-downright uncomfortable airplane seats, and quick commutes that lengthen the amount of time that can be spent exploring new places rather than looking down on them from a tiny window in the sky. But big dreams and noble intentions do not on their own ensure success. Boom Supersonic has gone off as well as one could hope a startup promising affordable supersonic travel could be, but with no commercial planes in the sky just yet, it’s still too early to say what the company’s legacy will be. Will it alter the landscape of commercial aviation, or will it — like Air France Flight 4590, a doomed Concorde flight — crash in flames shortly after takeoff?

In the final moments of the MayDay: Air Crash Investigation episode devoted to AF4590, “Concorde — Up in Flames,” the narrator tells the audience that 2003, the year of Concorde’s final flight, marks the “end” of “the first era of supersonic passenger travel.” If Boom Supersonic hopes to usher in the second era, it will need to be a dutiful student of history. What the history ultimately tells us is that for however strongly supersonic travel appeals in theory, the economics of aviation have changed in such a way as to make traveling at Mach 2 the an uphill climb.

A Brief Retrospective of the Concorde

When it debuted, the Concorde immediately grabbed the attention of the aviation world, as well as the wider public. In contrast to the big, sometimes aesthetically unremarkable planes used by global travelers that made up the bulk of airline fleets, the Concorde looked and felt like a winged messenger from the future. Sleek-bodied, technologically advanced, and unprecedentedly swift, the Concorde aspired to what no other commercial airliner sought to do. On their own, commercial airplanes were enough of a feat. To be able to traverse, for example, the United States in five or six hours when earlier modes of transport would have required days, if not weeks, represents a feat of human ingenuity that today is still taken for granted. For the Concorde, the marvel of human flight is all well and good, but it isn’t enough. If a plane could be designed to transport hundreds of people to far-flung locations, could it not be improved to be faster?

In the 1970s, a joint venture by the English and French answered that question affirmatively. The Concorde launched in January 1976, after years of research into the possibility of bringing supersonic speeds — which had only been reached by military planes — to the mainstream aviation marketplace. Because of the enormous research and development costs, in addition to the considerable expenses that go into maintaining a plane like the Concorde, the British and the French felt a cost-sharing agreement would be to their mutual benefit. Such a plane could distinguish them from American manufacturers like Lockheed and Boeing. The Concorde, a glamorous lawn dart of a plane, would quite literally shrink the world for anyone who could afford to pony up for a brief ride on the supersonic jet.

A list of routes flown by the Concorde (Source: Aerospaceweb)

Although the Concorde does mark the first instance of commercial supersonic travel, its clientele was slim, a far cry from the wide range of passengers that fill up jumbo jets like Boeing’s 747 or Airbus’ A380.

Concorde: The Facts

First practice flight, 1969; commercial existence, 1976-2003
British Airways and Air France
The Concorde could carry as many as 128 passengers, though most flights operated by British Airways and Air France were designated to carry 90-100 passengers, and around nine crew members. In a sharp break from most airline ticketing practices, the Concorde didn’t have individuated classes, with a “first class” getting special treatment over and above what more basic tickets allowed for. Because of the high price of Concorde tickets, merely being on the plane itself constituted the luxury treatment.
On one of the Concorde’s initial flights, from London to Bahrain, ran its customers £356 GBP, or in 2017 dollars around £2,700 GBP. This price, while high at the time, was only slightly more expensive than a first-class ticket on a more conventional airliner. In a history of the Concorde written for The Atlantic, Dara Bramson writes, “Early on, one-way tickets from JFK to Heathrow were roughly $1,500; by the 2000s, $7,000 was standard, and $10,000 round-trip was a deal.” The mass of literature written about the Concorde will frequently cite a rounded-up, conservative estimate of $12,000 USD for a round-trip Concorde flight. During the Concorde’s farewell flights in 2003, British Airways charged £4,350 (£6,481.50 in 2017) for a one-way ticket and £8,292 (£12,355 in 2017) for a round-trip ticket.
If it wasn’t enough for the Concorde to fly at almost triple the speed of standard commercial planes, it also could fly up to 60,000 feet in the air — nearly double the altitude of its subsonic counterparts. At its famed Mach 2 speed, the Concorde would cruise at around 50,000 feet, 10,000 feet over the limits set by commercial airline companies.
Supersonic flight doesn’t happen easily, a fact reflected by the Concorde’s fuel consumption. During flight the plane could gulp down 5,638 imperial gallons of fuel per hour during flight.

This is a seat map for the Airbus A380, one of the world’s largest commercial planes, typically used on long-haul flights by major airliners like Lufthansa and Emirates:

(Source: Aircraft Informer)

By contrast, the Concorde offers a much more limited range of seating:

(Source: Aircraft Informer)

The Concorde could get a considerably sized group of passengers from A to B faster than any commercial airplane by far, yet it transported a smaller amount of passengers, and it did so without providing the amenities that come with a first-class ticket on a standard commercial jumbo jet. Put simply, the Concorde’s main virtue, its speed, was its only selling point. If someone needed to get from London to New York in record time, the Concorde provided the only solution. If someone was wealthy and hated long flights, the Concorde would be his only means of avoiding the drudgery that accompanies air travel for most customers. Bramson, in his piece on the Concorde for The Atlantic, does point out that flight aboard the Concorde often game with branded gifts such as tie clips and flasks. But in terms of seating arrangement, Concorde passengers fared only slightly better than what is now commonly called economy class on subsonic airliners. With the Concorde, you got where you needed to go quickly, but your seats weren’t much different from those paying far less to spend longer on a plane.

High ticket prices and reduced cabin sizes established the Concorde’s glitzy exclusivity, but they also foreshadowed the unsustainable economic model of the plane itself. Considering that the Concorde was the only supersonic airplane of its kind, how is it that it could have been decommissioned?

The Last Flight of the Concorde: Why it Happened

For all of its technological prowess and public renown, the Concorde faced numerous obstacles to success. The appeal for ultra-fast flight is not so strong that it can withstand any market forces exacted upon it. Of the numerous issues faced by the Concorde, the following stand out.

Screen capture from the only video documenting the final moments of AF4590 (Source: YouTube)
  • Limited Client Base: British Airways and Air France attempted to market the Concorde as a reasonable option for anyone who would otherwise be paying for a first class ticket on a major airliner. Unfortunately for the Concorde, this group of people is still considerably smaller. To put the Concorde’s 128 person maximum seating arrangement into perspective, a present-day Boeing 777 can fit 122 people in the economy section of the plane alone. Airlines rake in the big bucks on premium first-class and business-class seats (and increasingly stratified sections like “Economy Plus”), but they do need to offer a range of ticket prices to draw in the most customers as possible. Due to its steep cost and small cabin size, the Concorde staked its fortunes on a small segment of the population.
  • Cost: Even those with little knowledge about flight don’t have to think hard to imagine just how much energy it must require to send a commercial airliner into supersonic speeds. Conflicting reports abound on the profitability of the Concorde; the low if not nonexistent profitability of the Concorde was well known to industry experts throughout the plane’s 27 year existence, but at different times British Airways reported making money off the supersonic flights. Where numbers can be found or estimated, things look poor for the Concorde. Wendover Productions calculates that the per-person fuel economy for a Concorde flight stands at about 14 miles per gallon (MPG), whereas a more modern commercial plane like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner gets a whopping 104 mpg. One reason why the Concorde’s flights typically lasted three to four hours is that the plane couldn’t maintain its speed for the same length of time as a super-sized airliner like the 787, otherwise it would run out of fuel before it could land. On top of that, the Concorde required pilots with specialized training and ground crews with intimate knowledge of the plane’s intricacies. To put any amount of money into a flying venture that, while cool, costs lots of money and affects only a small segment of the population spells financial doom. That the Concorde lasted 27 years isn’t a sign of failure; against its odds, the Concorde was actually a smashing success.
  • AF4590: Three years before the Concorde’s final flight, an Air France-operated Concorde plane crashed shortly after takeoff at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport. As it was taking off the Concorde ran over a thin piece of metal that had flown off of a Continental Airlines DC-10, which had taken off just minutes before the Concorde. This resulted in a tire puncture that sent debris flying into the plane’s left wing, which severed important electrical lines that, when combined with a fuel tank puncture, caused a fire from which the plane could not recover. Up until 2000, the safety reputation of the Concorde was immaculate; it had no fatal accidents on record.
  • 9/11: The final year of the Concorde’s commercial existence came just two years after the September 11th terrorist attacks, after which airline stocks dropped considerably. With the public’s attitude toward terrorism increasingly driven by fear, many people only took to flying if they absolutely had to. The decline in airfares compounded the damage done to the Concorde by the disaster of flight AF4590. Following that accident all Concordes were grounded to ensure that the events of AF4590 could not happen again, and the plane’s return to the skies came in November 2001, just two months after 9/11. From that badly timed comeback, the Concorde never stood a chance.

Can Boom Supersonic Awaken the Dead?

For all of its failures, the Concorde still marks an important and impressive chapter in aviation’s history. It’s no wonder that companies like Boom Supersonic want to bring back the spirit of the Concorde, which in its time was a major source of national pride for both Britain and France. Yet Boom Supersonic wants to take things a step further: acknowledging the high cost of a Concorde ticket, the start-up specifically wants to usher in the second age of supersonic commercial travel, where everyone has a chance of reaching 60,000 feet up in the air. Boom Supersonic knows that it follows in the Concorde’s footsteps, and the language of its promotional materials suggests that it’s doing the best to overcome the inherent flaws of the Concorde’s model. But for the second age of supersonic travel to really begin, Boom Supersonic will have to overcome the following challenges:

  • Cost: In an age where budget carriers like Southwest in the United States and EasyJet in Europe have massive appeal, Boom Supersonic has to price its planes to be profitable while also being in reach of those who couldn’t have afforded the Concorde back in the day. The company’s website boasts that a ticket on one of its planes will run about the cost of a business class seat. This may be an improvement over the Concorde, whose cost was comparable to a first-class seat, but it still makes supersonic travel a reach for most, unless they’re fortunate enough to (a) be wealthy, (b) get upgraded at the last second, or (c) have an employer willing to shell out for a supersonic ticket. As with the Concorde’s clientele, this is not nearly a large enough group to portend profitability for Boom Supersonic’s jets. This isn’t to say that with more R&D the company could bring tickets down to a more reasonable range, but it is to say that the same issues that brought about the Concorde’s end haven’t gone away.
  • Supply and Demand: Boom Supersonic stakes its business goals on this belief, expressed on its website: “Long flights are a barrier to travel. We’re removing that barrier, turning 8-hour redeyes into 3-4-hour daytime flights. Excruciating 16-hour journeys become easy overnights. When you can get there in half the time, where will you go?” For those that could actually say “money is no object” about their lives, this may be true. The bulk of airline passengers, however, don’t mind sitting through a longer flight if it means saving several hundred, if not thousands of dollars. If an American traveler can afford a flight from an East Coast major airport like Washington Dulles or New York John F. Kennedy, once in Europe she can hop around on cheap discount airlines, which collectively would amount to far less than the cost of a round-trip Mach 2 flight. That Boom Supersonic chooses to single out red-eye flights is odd, for red-eyes are often a great away of saving money while not wasting any time. If a passenger leaves New York late in the evening for a morning arrival in London, she can simply sleep through the night, which she would be doing anyways if she wasn’t airborne. Presumably, Boom Supersonic has crunched the numbers, but it needs to be sure that it isn’t mistaking something people think is cool with something people would actually pay for in substantial amounts of money.
  • Fighting Back Airline Consolidation: In the United States, the airline industry has consolidated into four major players as a consequence of years of buy-outs and companies gone defunct: American, Delta, United, and Southwest. A consequence of this market shrinkage is that, to put it in the direct words of Alex Pareene, “Airlines can treat you like garbage because they are an oligopoly.” With little competition, airlines can do whatever they want in terms of price-setting. In this non-competitive marketplace, there is little demand for or research being committed to supersonic travel by the major airliners. One cannot simply walk into an oligopolistic marketplace. The Concorde changed our understanding of what planes could be capable of; Boom Supersonic is building upon, rather than reinventing, that revelation. In order to make supersonic travel a paradigm shift, a small start-up will have to square against four major corporations that have the run of the skies when it comes to American aviation. It will take a force of Mach 2 proportions to upend the market in Boom Supersonic’s favor.

Boom Supersonic’s mission is not impossible, and should a necessary sequence of events come to pass, the company could overcome the sizable hurdles it faces in bringing back the mission of the Concorde. But like all scientific innovation, risk is high, and the possibility of failure looms every step of the way.

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