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Aviation: Boom - supersonic resurgence

Colorado-based aircraft manufacturer Boom has completed a second round of funding amounting to $100m, increasing the total it has raised to $141m. The firm is developing the Overture, a 55-seat supersonic airliner that it hopes to introduce into the market in the middle of the next decade. Boom now has more than 100 people working on the project and plans to fly a one third scale technology demonstrator known as the XB-1 later this year.

The 55-seat Boom Overture could be operating supersonic passenger flights within a decade. (Boom)

Boom founder and CEO Blake Scholl said: “This new funding allows us to advance work on Overture, the world’s first economically viable supersonic airliner. Overture fares will be similar to today’s business class — widening horizons for tens of millions of travelers. Ultimately, our goal is to make high-speed flight affordable to all.”


Overture will fly at Mach 2.2 (1,450mph), enabling London to New York flights in a little over three hours. The firm suggests it will also be suitable for routes such as San Francisco to Tokyo, with a short en route stop to refuel. Overture will offer premium lie-flat accommodation in a 1+1 arrangement with under-seat storage, large windows and in-flight connectivity and entertainment - all of which were absent from Concorde. It will use fuel-efficient turbofan engines that the firm claims will burn the seat-per-seat equivalent of a business class flight on a subsonic aircraft. Boom claims that advancements such as composite fuselages and high-temperature material systems have only recently been accepted by the FAA for use on commercial aircraft - and that these technologies final open the door to efficient, economical, and safe supersonic flight.

Dwelling on Concorde's lack of commercial success, Boom says that only 30% efficiency improvement over Concorde's 50-year-old airframe and engines in necessary to offer fares that passengers are willing to pay. With up to 55 seats, it claims Overture will achieve load factors similar to or better than premium cabins in subsonic widebodies and that will bring supersonic flight back in economically sustainable fashion. The firm says it expects to sell Overture at $200M (2016 dollars), plus options and interior, and that on an available seat-mile basis, it will be "meaningfully less costly to operate than subsonic widebody aircraft." Five airlines, Virgin Group and Japan Air Lines, have agreed commitments to take 76 Overtures to date.

Boom or bust?

There's no doubt that Concorde was a technological marvel, even if it was a commercial disaster. But BAC and Aerospatiale faced more than just economic challenges - they also had to overcome noise campaigns and political lobbying, while in later years the climatologists became concerned about impact CO2 and NOX emmisions have at 55,000ft. Then there was the supersonic boom that meant Concorde was limited to overwater flights. Boom says Overture's “boom” will be at least 30 times quieter than Concorde's, although it acknowledges there is work to do with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to clear the aircraft for overland operations. In the mean time two US Senators have proposed amendments to the US FAA re-authorisation bill that could exempt supersonic aircraft from Stage 5 noise regulations. This would enable Boom to lower Overture fuel consumption by between 20% and 30%, using engines optimised for acceleration rather than noise.

London to New York in just over three hours might be possible again, but Boom has to overcome climate objections and resolve technology issues. (Boom)

Boom is also no where near reaching the level of funding needed to put Overture into commercial service. Development of any new airliner, even less advanced aircraft, typically costs into billions rather than hundreds of millions - the firm estimates it will cost $5bn to get Overture to the market. But if it can put its XB-1 demonstrator into the air later this year, that will help it gain credibility and probably enable it to unlock more funding.

Boom is going to need a lot of luck. Detail is unclear at present - the specifications for major components like engines have been released, but as yet no manufacturer has officially been identified - and it takes several years to develop a commercial jet powerplant. And even when - or if - Overture is available to airlines, fitting 55-seaters into congested airports like Heathrow where slots are at a premium is not going to be easy. Nevertheless if Boom can overcome the technical and operational challenges, keep fares close to subsonic business-class, and win the environmental debate, it stands a chance because the time savings supersonic flight can offer will be compelling to some travellers. We might yet see a few of these jets plying the world's airways within a decade.

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