But the race comes at a crucial moment. Airlines’ revenue has plummeted due to the coronavirus pandemic, putting pressure on companies to find more revenue streams as they slowly recover. With climate change accelerating, carriers face pressure to expand their operations while keeping carbon emissions to a minimum.
In the meantime, technical challenges remain. Critics have said that jet engine technology, noise systems and a lack of clean and alternative jet fuel will make it difficult for airlines to obtain government approvals for planes and keep ticket prices low. They added that the companies’ bold claims to bring back supersonic travel will face scientific challenges for years to come.
“These manufacturers are trying to reinvent supersonic aircraft,” said Dan Rutherford, director of the aviation program at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “But they can’t reinvent science – and science is actually pretty damned.”
Supersonic travel has captured the imagination of pilots for decades. In 1947, USAF Captain Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly at supersonic speed, inspiring commercial airlines to follow suit. In 1962, the British and French governments signed an agreement to develop a supersonic jet aircraft, called the Concorde.
In 1976, Concorde made its commercial debut with two airlines – British Airways and Air France. Over the next two decades, the airplane grew into a symbol of luxury living. The menu had champagne, caviar, lobster and lamb. Hollywood celebrities, athletes and businessmen were photographed on board. The plane was flying at 60,000 feet, carrying passengers from New York to London in just about three hours, cutting travel time almost in half.
Despite its charm and speed, the plane was plagued by major problems. It created a sonic boom so loud that airlines were able to fly just above the speed of sound over water. The plane consumed huge amounts of fuel, which led to high ticket prices. A round-trip airfare between New York and London cost $12,000 in the early 1990s.
The plane’s engines were also noisy, much to the chagrin of residents who live near airports with Concorde planes. And in 2000, an Air France Concorde from Paris to New York caught fire, crashing into a hotel shortly after takeoff and killing 113 people, causing an image problem from which it was difficult to recover.
“It was more expensive to operate them [and] “Too big to be economically viable,” said Ian Boyd, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “And then they had an unfortunate accident… I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Since Concorde’s last passenger flight in 2003, there has been little attempt to revive service, until recently.
Over the past decade, several startups have emerged promising a better and more cost-effective supersonic jet for commercial air travel. Earlier this week, Canadian business jet maker Bombardier tested a smaller hypersonic private jet, called the Global 8000. Cost: $78 million per aircraft.
Blake Schull, CEO of Boom Technology, a Denver-based company founded in 2016, said his company hopes to have a supersonic aircraft, called the Overture, in the sky by 2029. He has a production facility in South Carolina.
Scholl added that his supersonic plane, which can accommodate 65 to 88 passengers and fly at just under twice the speed of sound, will cost airlines $200 million apiece. He said United Airlines has a firm order for 15 aircraft, which could increase by as much as 35 more. Scholl added that Japan Airlines has said it may buy up to 20 planes.
He said the company would not repeat Concorde’s failures for a variety of reasons. Carbon fiber technology has improved since the 1960s, allowing the Front to be lighter and more fuel-efficient than the Concorde. The software is better, allowing his team to build a more aerodynamic plane. His company plans to use sustainable aviation fuel – an alternative fuel derived from plant waste and other organic matter – allowing Boom to be more environmentally conscious.
“All together it means that for the first introduction, the airlines will be profitable,” he said.
Mike Liskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures, said his company’s bet on supersonic travel will fill customer demand for high-speed business flights. It plans to have most of the planes on routes from Newark International Airport to London by the end of the decade, with the potential to go to Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.
He said United would configure the plane to accommodate about 80 or so passengers in business class seats similar to those on long domestic flights from Newark to Los Angeles, rather than the flat beds found on international routes. He said ticket prices will cost about the same as current business class fare, hovering around $5,000 and $10,000 for a round-trip itinerary.
He said, “You have this technological convergence, and that will allow us to make something economic and profitable non-economic and profitable with the old technology.”
But some scientists and aeronautical engineers are skeptical, noting that the claims of aircraft makers and airlines appear promising, but are difficult to achieve.
Noise will be the biggest challenge, said Boyd of the University of Colorado. He points out that sonic blasts may be less significant due to NASA’s advances in muting, but that planes will still only be able to fly at full speed over water — making supersonic travel between cities in the United States difficult.
He said meeting FAA laws and international noise regulations would also be challenging. Experts have said that supersonic aircraft require narrow aerodynamic engines, but that it is difficult to keep them quiet enough to meet government sound limits. Boyd added that public discussions about aircraft noise are also fraught with political issues.
“The inconvenience and inconvenience of the extra noisy planes for a relatively few wealthy people, it just doesn’t sound good,” he said. (Boom spokeswoman Aubrey Scanlan said she was “confident” the introduction would meet FAA noise regulations.)
The fuel costs will make it difficult for supersonic air travel to become a viable business, said Rutherford, of the International Council on Clean Transportation. He said that supersonic aircraft would burn seven to nine times more fuel than regular “subsonic” aircraft.
Rutherford added that companies like United and Boom understand this, and pledged to use sustainable aviation fuels. But the supply of sustainable fuel is limited and the cost is high – two to five times more than the cost of fossil jet fuel.
“That honestly broke the deal, I think,” he said.