The return of supersonic flight

United and Boom Supersonics plan to take us back to the future

✍️ The big story

On Thursday, United Airlines announced it was ordering 15 planes—with an option to purchase up to 35 more—from Boom Supersonic1, a Denver startup that has spent the last five years or so developing jets that can travel faster than the speed of sound. According to Bloomberg, at $200 million per plane, the deal is worth $3 billion.

Boom’s jets could shorten transatlantic flights between Newark, N.J. and London to three and-a-half hours—from around seven hours today—and enable six-hour trips between Tokyo and San Francisco, which would be down from 11 hours nonstop on regular flights.

Boom showed off a demonstration version of its aircraft last fall, but it will be years before business travelers will have a chance to fly at that speed. Under its current plan, Boom expects to introduce the commercial version of its supersonic aircraft in 2025, begin flight tests in 2026, and have United launch commercial services in 2029.

But assuming all goes well, United could launch the first commercial supersonic flight in more than 25 years—a feat not repeated since the Concorde took its final voyage between New York City and London in 2003.

The fact that the Concorde flew trips between the U.S. and Europe for nearly 25 years shows that there’s not really a technical limitation that would stop a carrier from running supersonic flights—after all, the basic technology hasn’t changed that much in the last half-century. The real barrier to Mach 2 commercial flight is making the business model work.

United, for its part, believes that advances in design and materials science could make its planes at least 75 percent more efficient than the original Concorde design. And in an interview from 2019, Boom CEO Blake Scholl said:

We’re really standing on the shoulders of all the work that’s happened in aerospace since literally the Concorde 50 years ago. And we’ve gone from aluminum as the material to carbon fiber composites; we’ve gone from defining aerodynamics in wind tunnels to being able to do it in simulation, through cloud computing; we’ve gone from engines that are loud and very inefficient to modern jet engines that are quiet and sip fuel. And it turns out that if you take all that technology that’s been proven, the big players in the space have been iteratively optimizing the same technology you’ve had since the 1960s. But you can actually take that same technology and instead of make the machine more efficient, make the human more efficient, and deploy it in service of speed. So the design of our airplane is very radical, but the fundamental technology is conventional.

It’s the efficiency of the new planes that could make the routes feasible, at least for business travel. There are still questions around how environmentally friendly the new planes will be, but really—if you’re paying thousands of dollars for a four-hour plane ride, how environmentally conscious are you really?

📖 What I’m reading

The mystery of the $113 million deli [NY Times]
An investigation into the Paulsboro, N.J. deli that is worth more than $100 million on the pink sheets.

The long chin [Dror Peleg]
You’ve heard about the long tail, well…

I am not always very attached to being alive [The Outline]
”Chronic, passive suicidal ideation is like living in the ocean. Let’s start talking about how to tread water.”

There’s no such thing as a former journalist [Poynter]

You’re going back to the office. Here is what your day might look like. [WSJ]
This sounds like hell, honestly.

🧘‍♂️Your moment of zen


Side note: I remember being at Y Combinator Demo Day when Boom made its pitch to investors and thinking wow, what a cool company!