Supersonic flight is getting a reboot

A mock up of the Boom XB-1 model.
A mock up of the Boom XB-1 model.
Image: Courtesy/Boom Supersonic
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It’s rare that technology moves backwards. But such was the case with the Concorde passenger jet, a supersonic airliner that was in operation from 1976 to 2003 and boasted a London-to-New-York flight time of just three and a half hours. It even offered “supersonic cocktail parties.”

An Air France flight that crashed shortly after takeoff on July 25, 2000, killing everyone on board, is often cited as the downfall of the Concorde. But there are rumblings that supersonic transportation—transport faster than the speed of sound—may be poised for a return. Denver, Colorado-based aviation startup Boom Supersonic has reportedly received 76 pre-orders for its XB-1, with other carriers expressing interest.

The company’s website reports that the aircraft prototype will ditch Concorde’s old-school aluminum exterior and replace it with “advanced aerodynamic design, light-weight materials that can withstand supersonic flight, and an efficient super-cruise propulsion system,” all for a seat price no higher than your present-day business-class ticket. Boom says assembly will start soon on its “Baby Boom” prototype, and experimental flights are due to begin next year, with full-scale operation by 2025.

While the Air France crash—and a general decline in aviation following the September 11 attacks—is often blamed for the Concorde’s demise, the reality is more complex. In order to be successful, there are a range of barriers that Boom will have to contend with, including astronomical fuel and maintenance costs, prohibitive ticket costs, lower capacity planes, noise levels, and environmental issues. Supersonic travel is also illegal in the continental US due to noise disturbance, so flights will be limited to transatlantic routes unless the legislation changes.

And then there’s the changing nature of air travel itself, which, unless you’re wealthy, has worsened considerably since the early aughts. In a world where affording a flight means forgoing free soft drinks and blankets, it’s hard to imagine supersonic air travel being commercially viable for a wide customer base.

More likely, it will become a tool in the ever-hastening arms race to make luxury travel more luxurious for the few, and more inhumane for the rest.