Transportation Policy

United Airlines Wants To Bring Back Supersonic Air Travel. Will the FAA Let It?

The company has agreed to purchase 15 supersonic airliners from Denver-based aerospace startup Boom.

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Interest in the return of commercial supersonic air travel is booming. But will the technology be able to break through the regulatory barriers that stand in its way?

On Thursday, United Airlines announced its intention to purchase 15 supersonic Overture jets from Denver-based aerospace startup Boom Supersonic. The hope is for these 65–88-person airliners—which have yet to be built, let alone tested—to be ferrying passengers across oceanic routes by 2029, according to a joint press release put out by the two companies.

"At speeds twice as fast, United passengers will experience all the advantages of life lived in person, from deeper, more productive business relationships to longer, more relaxing vacations to far-off destinations," said Boom CEO Blake Scholl.

On its website, Boom says a trip from San Francisco to Tokyo on its Overture jet will take six hours, instead of the current journey of just over 10.

Faster-than-sound travel isn't a new technology. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. But commercial airline passengers have been stuck at subsonic speeds ever since the supersonic Concorde plane was taken out of service in 2003.

A fatal crash in 2000 and its noisy, fuel-hungry engines helped do that airliner in. Not helping its chances of success was a 1973-issued Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation banning supersonic flights over land, meaning it could only offer transatlantic flights.

Since the Concorde's retirement, there have been a number of economic and technological developments that make profitable supersonic travel more feasible, says Eli Dourado, a senior research fellow at Utah State University's Center for Growth and Opportunity (and former global policy chief for Boom).

"On a technological level there is no reason that an aircraft could not be much, much better than what Concorde was able to achieve," Dourado tells Reason.

Improved materials are one reason, he says. The aluminum that the Concorde was built with would expand thanks to the high heat of supersonic travel, creating additional drag and introducing a complicated engineering problem of keeping its nonexpanding cabin airtight. Newer carbon fiber materials are more thermally stable and easier to shape into the curves needed for supersonic flight.

Advances in software have also enabled engineers to test new designs much more rapidly.

"When Concorde was developed, they basically did it with pencil and paper. They did it with slide rules and drafting tables," says Dourado, meaning it would take months to test new designs. Today's computer simulations allow you to "test thousands of designs over the life of an aircraft program, instead of ten or so that Concorde was able to do."

Lastly, 50 years of advances in lighter, fuel-efficient engines also make supersonic flight cheaper and thus more commercially viable. The rapid growth in the market for premium transatlantic flights also improves the economics of the industry.

Coupled with these technological changes are a few more marginal updates to federal supersonic regulations.

In January 2021, the FAA finalized new rules making it easier for companies to get permission to conduct supersonic test flights over land. It's also currently in the process of crafting new noise standards for supersonic aircraft during takeoffs and landings.

Both those regulatory changes were required by a reauthorization of the FAA that Congress passed in 2018. That law also directs the agency to review its existing ban on routine supersonic flights once every two years.

One shouldn't expect revocation of that rule in the near future, however. Before the FAA can ditch that prohibition, the National Environmental Policy Act requires it to first perform a review of the environmental impacts (including noise effects) of supersonic flight.

That, in turn, requires data on those noise effects that the FAA doesn't currently have. A NASA program to conduct test flights of "quiet" supersonic aircraft over communities is supposed to provide the information the FAA will need to conduct its environmental review, but the completion of that program is still years away.

"It is good that the FAA has been easing its very strict prohibitions on even testing overland [flights]," says Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.

That gives United and Boom the breathing room they need to test their new technology and potentially put it into service over oceanic routes where supersonic flight is still allowed.

Should that prove successful, it'll hopefully pave the way for broader legalization of supersonic flight across the U.S. as well. "Before you have an actual, in-service aircraft it's going to be difficult for regulators, the public, and politicians to get fully behind overland supersonic," says Scribner.

At the same time, he cautions that traditional "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) complaints about aircraft noise as well as environmental concerns about the emissions from air travel could lead to additional barriers for the industry.

"I think that's why you saw in the United announcement, that [its supersonic jets] would be fueled by 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel," he says. "That was in part trying to get out ahead of objections or concerns we've heard expressed from some environmental groups about these technologies."

Boom's plan is to start test flights of its Overture planes by 2026.

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  1. “At speeds twice as fast, United passengers will experience all the advantages of life lived in person”

    One trusts the Administration will offer up at least another $1T to support this critical infrastructure and the creation of new jobs.

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  2. John Kerry will be the first to get one. He needs to deliver his climate message with supersonic speed!

  3. Well this will give the environitwits and karens something to grouse about on social media, with so called bootlicking journalists hanging on their every word.

    1. Seems like you’re the expert on grousing.

  4. The jet has net zero carbon emissions and runs on sustainable fuel. Or it will be once they “scale it up” from the 70′ long 1/3 scale demonstrator that has no room for passengers, has never left the ground and is the only plane they’ve ever built.

    1. I’m sure they’re working on the electric version.

      1. Tony has already wondered why they don’t have electric jets.

  5. Hmm, if one of the obstacles to acceptance of supersonic flight is noise, maybe it’s not a good idea to call the company, “Boom”.

    1. That’s for the investors. I think it’s highly unlikely this outfit will ever deliver an aircraft to a customer. They’ve been at this for years and have yet to fly an experimental plane.

  6. > Not helping its chances of success was a 1973-issued Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation banning supersonic flights over land

    Which is a sensible rule. I’m old enough to remember the time before that. We used to get supersonic flights overhead as a kid, and they were loud. Even caused some plaster damage to my grandparent’s lathe-and-plaster ceiling over time. As a kid I loved those BOOMs that would interrupt absolutely anything going on at the time. But for adults they must have been exceedingly aggravating.

    1. I lived next to an Air National Guard base. We got sonic booms all the time. They shook the windows a little, no big deal. People should lighten up.

    2. No, it wasn’t a sensible rule. If noise is the problem, ban the noise. Don’t make presumptions that all supersonic travel creates the same noise. Nor should you make presumptions that noise caused by supersonic aircraft is bad but that the same noise from some other source is just fine.

      1. They basically did ban the noises. Supersonic flights are still fine, just not below a certain altitude where they will cause noise on the ground.

        1. No, they didn’t ban the noise. They banned some behavior on the theory that the behavior always causes the noise (it doesn’t) and while ignoring the fact that other non-prohibited behaviors cause equally disruptive noises.

          If they wanted to ban the noise, they could have passed a far simpler rule such as “thou shalt not fly thy plane such that it creates a noise above X decibels as measured at Y.” And if they wanted, they could have created a safe-harbor such as “supersonic flights above altitude Z shall be presumed to be in compliance with the above”.

  7. I knew someone who flew on the Concorde, but it was out of my league at the time.

    Definitely a bucket list item: fly supersonic.

  8. outlawing sonic booms is was did the sonic planes in. Now apparently this company claims to have eliminated or reduce the sonic boom. i don’t know how since the second you break the sound barrier you get the boom but maybe they wait till they get high enough in elevation where there is less air that there is less sonic boom

    1. Unless I’m missing something Boom hasn’t flown even one plane of their own design. But they say when they do it will be fast silent and green.

    2. “the second you break the sound barrier you get the boom”

      That’s not necessarily true, there are aircraft designs that (in computer simulations at least) manage to break the sound barrier without creating any shockwaves. No shockwave, no boom

      There are also numerous designs, both theoretical and fully built/tested, that significantly reduce the size of the shockwaves and thus the volume of the boom

    3. There are ways to shape the boom so that it not the sharp crack that is normal.

      Theoretically.

    4. You can avoid the boom by eliminating the drag. But I have a hard time imagining they eliminated the drag. That’s Nobel Prize winning physics right there. Heck, the reason these planes are pointy is to reduce that drag. The big sonic booms were from stubbier military aircraft.

      You are correct that the higher you are the less boom there is, simply because the air is thinner and the sound has longer to travel to reach the ground. It’s why we don’t hear the U2 or SR-71 when they pass overhead. (Not much of spy planes if they could be heard).

      1. You can’t avoid the boom by eliminating drag. The boom is a pressure wave caused by compressing air in front of the aircraft.

  9. on the fence with the name lol. too soon?

  10. Hooray. We’re catching up with 1960’s-level technology at last.

    The next thing you know, we’ll regain the capability to put a person on the moon.

  11. Oh, joy. Our Chinese overlords will be able to spend an extra five or six hours in the U.S. administering to their property (human and otherwise).

  12. Wouldn’t building a bullet train under the ocean create more jobs though? And be better for the environment?

  13. Supersonic motivating rhymes are creating
    And everybody knows that J.J. Fad is devastating
    We know you like us girls so you better get stirl’
    ‘Cause we are the home chicks that are rockin’ your world

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti1bFMBd6V4

    1. so tell those nosy people just to stay the hell back.

  14. By then all travel will have to be by foot, or on a train.
    (except travel to and from international conferences on global-climate-warming-change)

  15. We all know Biden is going to develop a hypersonic train. Why would you want to travel by air?

    1. The California Bullet Train, even if completed, would never get up to even 60MPH, because it has to stop in every assembly district along the route.

      Currently they’re constructing it through Fresno. Why the fuck is it going through the damned center of Fresno when it’s supposed to be a bullet train from LA to SF? No offense to Fresno (Go Bulldogs!) but if it’s supposed to do what it says on the package they should have just made it parallel I-5 and damn all the whistlestops.

  16. Nononononono.

    This company they’re buying planes from is touting their ‘green’ planes.

    They ain’t nothing but another attempt to grift off government subsidies. Hence why they’re allying with a longtime hustler.

  17. United Airlines. I have learned to pay extra to avoid them when I can. My son was recently going through the 12 hour hell of trying to change a flight with them. They actually used the fact that they were working in this supersonic plane as an excuse for why it takes so long to change his flight.

    1. As lame as UA is, I would still rather fly with them than American. AA has the best stewardesses, but damn everything else about them.

  18. Years ago I heard what I thought was a double collision on a nearby road. Found out later it was the twin sonic booms from the space shuttle.

  19. This is basically a plane for the high end business customer. I sure those planning to buy them believe there is a market. But for the average Joe/Jill its a none issue.

  20. I’m not sure saving two hours getting to London is worth $5,000 or $6,000 to me.

    1. This is for the upper class elite, not hoi polloi like you.
      You aren’t going to be allowed to fly soon anyway because global warming you planet killer.

  21. “At the same time, he cautions that traditional “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) complaints about aircraft noise as well as environmental concerns about the emissions from air travel could lead to additional barriers for the industry.”

    That’s basically the only paragraph you need to read. This company will never field an airplane.

  22. Will there be an express lane at the airport for the SS flyers? (and preferential parking?)

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