Repeating the Concorde, United has bought supersonic planes from the aviation Boom startup

On Thursday, United Airlines announced it had acquired a fleet of 15 aircraft that could travel faster than the speed of sound. With a cost per jet of $ 200 million, the deal worth $ 3 billion. If the order passes, this would be the first fleet of supersonic passenger aircraft since the Concorde.

United says the planes, which are being acquired by the Denver-based supersonic flight startup Boom, are designed to go at twice the speed of a typical flight. It would be fast enough to get someone from Newark to London only three and a half hours. The first of these flights is scheduled for 2026, and the company plans to start transporting passengers by 2029. If all goes well, United has the option to purchase at least 35 other aircraft from the startup, which is one of several focused on doing supersonic flight work for the 21st century.

But there is another touch. United and Boom also want to make these flights environmentally friendly, promising that these flights will be “net-zero carbon from day one,” and rely entirely on fuel for sustainable aviation, which is replaced by waste or organic sources.

United and Boom’s announcement comes as a maximum the environmental costs of the flight make scrutiny increasing. The movement to regulate more strictly aircraft emissions are now worldwide, and airlines have announced more and more plans to reduce their impact on the environment. Activists like Greta Thunberg they pushed the idea that people should give up flying healthy.

At the same time, the idea of ​​supersonic flight is appealing because it is extremely fast and runs hours away from transoceanic flights. Not to mention that it would be nice to travel faster than the speed of sound.

But like the Concorde, the world’s first and last supersonic passenger commercial jet, shown years ago, the prospect of an environmentally friendly supersonic flight is not just a highly ambitious (and potentially impossible) goal. It is also the one that comes with its own set of challenges, from regulatory barriers to resolving noise pollution. It makes economically feasible supersonic flight amid concerns about climate change a difficult fact. Some experts say the idea of ​​green supersonic flight is almost self-contradictory. The Concorde, they remarked, was quite terrible in terms of emissions.

“One of the big problems with the Concorde was that it was considered very bad for the environment,” said Janet Bednarek, a Professor at the University of Dayton studying aviation history, he told Recode. “It burned a lot of fuel, but it also polluted the upper levels of the atmosphere.”

A rendering of what might appear to be the United-Boom jet.

The history of passenger supersonic aircraft actually goes back decades. Operated by British Airways and Air France, the Concorde was able to fly just over twice the speed of sound: Mach 2.01. The jet famously helped Phil Collins performs in London and Philadelphia (via New York) on the same day. But despite its impressive speed, the Concorde had big problems. Supersonic flight requires a huge amount of fuel per jet, and the engines are notoriously strong inside the cabin. Flights are also historically very expensive: A return ticket on the Concorde Peru flight of three and a half hours between New York and London it could cost about $ 10,000. After a crash in 2000 that it killed more than 100 people it is more and more insurmountable economic problems, the last Concorde commercial flight was in 2003.

In recent years, a bunch of startups have been working to make supersonic flight happen again. At the forefront is Boom, which has at least $ 250 million in funding and revealed a prototype of the jet last October. Based in Atlanta herment and Virgin Galactic they are developing their own designs for a supersonic jet. Just last month, however, one of the leading companies looking to build supersonic aircraft, Aerion Supersonic, announced that it would stop, citing a “hugely challengeAn economy that would delay the production of its first jet.

There is also growing work to be done u sound boom, The supersonic air of surprising sound produces when they break the sound barrier. NASA is working with Lockheed Martin on a supersonic research device, and the agency told Vox in 2016 that a “supersonic quiet floor”It could be possible, as it could solve a major obstacle for these high-speed flights. In January, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced the final rules for testing supersonic aircraft, creating a framework for these startups to move forward with flight testing.

Boom’s XB-1 Supersonic Demonstrator aircraft is located in the company’s hangar at Boom’s headquarters in Denver, Colorado.
Tom Cooper / Getty Images by Boom Technology

To reduce the environmental impact, United says Boom plans will use sustainable aviation fuels, but the limited supply of this could be better used in other plans. Research suggests that supersonic planes would require more times more fuel per passenger than a typical air trip, according to Dan Rutherford, director of the aviation program of the International Council for Clean Transport.

“These will be alternatives to fossil jet fuel, and that fuel is extremely rare today – and it’s also very expensive,” Rutherford said. “It’s a super small market already, and trying to combine that with an aircraft that we know will burn a lot of fuel seems really enriching to me.”

A Boom spokesman told Recode he was working with United to avoid a negative impact on the supply of sustainable jet fuel available for other aircraft.

There are other challenges to come that cast doubt on United’s goals. For one thing, it’s not clear how much more passengers will be willing to pay just to save a few hours. While United hasn’t said how much tickets on its supersonic jets will eventually cost, they will probably be more expensive than a typical flight. There is also the challenge of the sonic boom and the prospect of noise pollution at airports.

Others are more optimistic, saying that improvements in technology that did not exist during the Concorde age could make supersonic flight a success, despite the setback in the early decades.

“Supersonics could connect major cities like never before, greatly expand global business networks, increase American competitiveness and animate an industry that has been stagnant for decades,” Bloomberg the editorial wrote in March. “On the road, ultra-fast travel for the masses is not unlikely.”

The impact on the environment, added the editorial board, needs to be studied, and supersonic flights must comply with international rules on coal offsets – which are controversial, like Vox’s Umair Irfan explained.

According to Bednarek, historian of airlines, the future of flight should be focused on being energy efficient and less harmful to the environment, not on speed or size.

“If they do – God bless you – they’ve really achieved something,” Bednarek said. “It’s going to prove to be a lot more challenging than some of the celebrity commercials that come out now seem to suggest.”

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