(CNN) – The aviation sector is in crisis, there is a global push to cut carbon emissions, and many of us have not stepped on a plane or hugged our loved ones who live far away in over a year.
Reliving the dream of the supersonic journey that died with the retirement of the Concorde almost two decades ago seems, at first, an outlandish fantasy.
The British-French Concorde aircraft, one of only two supersonic aircraft to have operated commercially, flew from 1969 to 2003 and proved ridiculously expensive and a disaster for the environment.
But now a new group of startups is working on supersonic and hypersonic projects. Last October, the Boom Supersonic company was the first to launch a demonstration aircraft in real conditions, the XB1.
CNN Travel He met with founder and CEO Blake Scholl to discuss Overture, the Mach 2.2 commercial jet that he wants to air in 2026, and the company’s ambitious long-term plans.
Break the time barrier
“Either we fail or we change the world,” says Scholl in a video call from Denver, Colorado.
There hasn’t been any major acceleration in travel times since the jet age of the 1950s and 1960s, and his team hopes to change that.
“That time barrier is what separates us. We believe that it is very important to break the barrier of time, more than that of sound ».
Designed with a capacity of between 65 and 88 people, Overture will target more than 500 primarily transoceanic routes that will benefit from the aircraft’s Mach-2.2 speeds, more than double that of current subsonic commercial aircraft.
A trip from New York to London would take just three hours and 15 minutes, while the one from Los Angeles to Sydney would be shortened to eight and a half hours.
Breaking the time barrier could be a game changer, says Scholl. “Change the places where we can go on vacation, change the places where we can do business, change the places that you can fall in love with or that you can be close to.”
Set the goal and work in reverse
Boom Supersonic’s current schedule is to fly the 1: 3 scale XB1 prototype aircraft “towards the end of the year”, begin construction of a new factory in the United States in 2022 (location to be determined), and begin construction of the first aircraft. Overture in 2023.
“We think we are picking up where the Concorde left off and fixing the most important thing is economic and environmental sustainability,” said Scholl.
Accessibility is key. Its goal is for airlines to be able to set fares at a price similar to that of business class, unlike the Concorde, which in the 90s charged about US $ 12,000 for a round trip, which would be US $ 20,000 in money current.
“That’s not traveling, that’s something you hope to do once in your life,” Scholl said before adding, “Contrary to what we want to achieve, which is to get anywhere in the world in four hours for $ 100.”
Yes, you read that right.
“Now, it’s going to take us a while to get there,” says Scholl. Four-hour sleep for $ 100 is Boom’s long-term goal, two or three generations of planes down the road.
“Many people think of a step or two forward,” he says. “It seems useful to me to think much further and say: ‘where do we want to be in a decade or two? And what is possible on that time scale? ». Then you work in reverse and say, ‘How did we get there?’
Boom plans to get to that point by designing a new 100% carbon-neutral aircraft from scratch. The current insane state of the world has actually been an unintended advantage.
“I wouldn’t wish the pandemic on the world, but it’s actually going to accelerate the adoption of jetsons,” says Scholl.
Airlines have had to reduce their fleets and, in some cases, have forced large-capacity aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 to retire early.
“As things go back to growth mode,” says Scholl, “there is an opportunity to build a next-generation fleet that incorporates the jetsons. That facilitates its adoption.
In addition, the plane is 60 meters long, with no space for the undesirable middle seats, an advantage after the pandemic.
“Physics cannot design an ugly supersonic aircraft,” says Scholl. But as whimsical as its exterior is, it “has more or less the same form factor as a 757, so it fits into narrow gates, which makes airlines love it.”
Boarding gates for oversized jets are rare in today’s congested airports, so it can be difficult to find space for large planes, but not for a humble Boeing 557, 737 or, according to Scholl, a Boom Overture. .
“Jetsonics have some inherent advantages,” says Scholl. “For example, if you don’t want to be on a plane because you are worried about the next pandemic, then it is better to be on the plane for a shorter period of time.”
Boom’s first mission, he says, was to be fast enough to make a difference. Although ultimately his team wants to be able to connect anywhere in the world in four hours, in this phase a key objective was to be able to turn a night flight into a daytime one.
“Instead of paying business class for a flight bed, you have the best bed in the world, which is the one at home the night before you have to leave,” says Scholl.
By focusing less on those long-haul comforts, the team has been able to focus on making the onboard experience clean, uncluttered and as relaxed as possible.
It’s hard for many to shake off the idea that supersonic travel must be inherently expensive and wasteful. But says Scholl: “It helps to remember that we are literally talking about sixties technology. Many things have changed.
Aircraft technology “has gone from aluminum to carbon fiber, from drawing paper and slide rules and wind tunnels to being able to optimize airplanes by computer simulations. We have completely changed the way aircraft engines are built, so now they are quieter and consume less.
This means that the costs of supersonic flights have come down a lot, and at the same time, we are now able to build with alternative fuels in mind.
“What you basically do is suck carbon out of the atmosphere, liquefy it into jet fuel and put it on the plane,” says Scholl. “So when it comes out of the back of the plane, you’re just moving the carbon in a circle.”
A bold goal
How realistic is Boom Supersonic’s long-term ambition to connect anywhere in the world in four hours, at a price of just $ 100 in today’s money?
“It’s a bold goal!” Says Professor Sean O’Keefe, an aviation industry expert at Syracuse University, who was the president of Airbus and the US Secretary of the Navy. “And sometimes that’s what it takes: getting someone who really believes in their ability to do something like that to make it happen.”
The biggest obstacle is that “beyond achieving speed, it generates a fierce amount of heat. Any conventional engine that is assembled would melt. ‘ What will be needed are more advances in materials science, and it depends on more inventions or discoveries.
Although it is feasible, O’Keefe estimates that “it will take two or three generations of technology, development and advancement, which is equivalent to about 20 years.”
Interest in Boom’s project has been high. A couple of weeks ago, Scholl addressed the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aviation, and in April American Express Ventures was the last high-profile investor to open his portfolio. Boom says he currently has $ 6 billion in pre-orders for Overture jets.
Boom’s main competitor in the supersonic race is Florida-based Aerion, which in March 2021 unveiled its plans for a Mach 4+ commercial jet called the Aerion AS3, which would be capable of carrying 50 passengers.