The false hope of supersonic travel in 2018


Boom CEO Blake Scholl poses with a model of the Overture aircraft during the 2017 Paris Air Show
Boom CEO Blake Scholl poses with a model of the Overture aircraft during the 2017 Paris Air Show

You are NOT going to have the opportunity to fly supersonic in 2018. This shouldn’t be a surprise but Boom Supersonic’s hype machine was in overdrive at the Dubai Air Show last week and it got some traction. The Telegraph and Conde Nast Traveler both pushed stories out with headlines about supersonic travel returning by 2018:

And, while neither is an outright lie, well, they’re both damn close.

Boom’s plan and timeline are not new. The company hasn’t shifted much on its plans in the past 18 months. And the goal for 2018 is to have the XB-1, a one-third scale model of the supersonic jet, flying. Not with passengers. Not with anything close to the frequency of a commercial aircraft. Not even really the same plane that will eventually be flying with consumers later next decade if things go to plan.

Read More: Boom is poised to go supersonic, but . . .

Proving that the company can build and fly a supersonic jet will be a significant milestone. But in the scope of a return to supersonic passenger travel, well, not really anything close to the hype being laid out in those articles; certainly not living up to the headlines.



Boom’s Engine Challenges

Beyond the fact that the 2018 plan doesn’t really involve supersonic travel for consumers nor the first flight of the commercial aircraft, the company’s briefing at Dubai arguably introduced more uncertainty about the product’s future than anything. One of the company’s longstanding goals has been to use commercial engines rather than military hardware. Keeping the costs and complexity down on the power plant is critical to realizing supersonic flight at the promised price point. The XB-1 engine is already selected and that work is ongoing. But what about the real Boom plane? Things there get confusing in a hurry.

CEO Blake Scholl informed the press that the company was still working to decide if a “derivative” of an existing commercial engine would work or if a “clean-sheet design” would be required. Using an existing engine is a quicker and cheaper route to a successful aircraft. Boom has kept relatively quiet about which engines it is considering for the full size aircraft, though. Should none prove sufficient the switch to a new engine type would almost certainly upset the timeline. That sort of work is incredibly complicated and doesn’t happen overnight.



The Supersonic Business Model

The other open question on the Boom business model is whether the demand really exists as broadly as Scholl believes it does. The company sees demand for 1000-2000 supersonic jets in the next 20 years. It is designing its assembly line to support 100 deliveries per year based on that forecast. But the aircraft will still not go supersonic over land, limiting routes where the demand can fill in.

During the Paris Air Show over the summer the company made pretty much all of the same claims (save for the disclosure that it didn’t really have an engine yet). And it didn’t completely make sense then, either.

Boom envisions tons of routes for its new supersonic aircraft. Some are more viable than others.

The theoretical route map shows a number of markets where the ultra-premium demand is suspect (e.g. LAX-HNL). The spec sheet also shows a maximum range of “4,500 nautical miles unrefueled”, making it wholly insufficient for many of the longer trips the company envisions on that map.

Will it fly??

Supersonic is sexy. It is no surprise that Boom is getting this media attention. Speed sells and there is plenty of nostalgia for Concorde, particularly among those who never flew it and still see it as representing the pinnacle of success. If you were important or wealthy enough you got to fly Concorde.

But that is no excuse to simply overlook the facts around the company’s timeframe for building the product. It doesn’t make it okay to ignore the inconsistencies between the marketing plan and the engineering specifications.

Building the plane is undoubtedly possible. Getting past FAA certification – on time and on budget – is less certain. And getting to full scale commercial deployment with multiple airline operators is even further away.

I hope it flies. I think it would be an incredible experience and could significantly change the industry, mostly in a good way. But I know it isn’t really happening in 2018.

Header image courtesy of Boom Supersonic

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

20 Comments

  1. I hope supersonic passenger travel does return be it Boom Supersonic or another provider. Thanks for sharing your views on this update. Regards Alastair Majury

  2. I’d just add one thing: At least they’re trying. What they’re attempting to do is very, very difficult, though not impossible. I do believe they are sincere and acknowledge the scale of the challenge they are attempting, except for a bit of perhaps understandable sugar-coating in their marketing presentations. The real problem is not really Boom, but the uninformed, click-bait headlines that Seth cites in his piece. They’re not only wildly inaccurate, but they set up an impossible expectation that will inevitably cause the public to turn on legitimate efforts like Boom as soon as they encounter any technical or financial difficulty, which they surely will. My guess is that supersonic flight is coming back, but it probably won’t be Boom that leads the charge. As soon as ICAO lifts the prohibition on supersonic flight overland — and there is path to do so by around 2023 or so — expect Gulfstream and Dassault to jump right in there. Gulfstream’s already done a huge amount of the necessary R&D and Dassault certainly knows its way around a supersonic jet. That’s the real story, and I believe we will see a supersonic business jet by 2030.

    1. Absolutely agree, Stephen. The reporting on the progress is what I find really troubling.

      That said, I’m also mildly annoyed by the engine situation given the early hype around using commercial hardware for such. Yes, that will be the case for XB-1, but I had inferred that the same was expected for the real thing. Shame on me, perhaps, for not pressing that issue previously. But I was very surprised to hear that it is an open issue still, particularly given the timelines the company is proposing.

    2. The engines will forever be the long pole in the tent for civil supersonics. No engine manufacturer is going to fund a clean-sheet design for this segment of the market — not when they can make a far easier return on their R&D dollar from a subsonic turbofan. Their only path is to convince GE, which has been remarkably open to the idea in principle, to commit hundreds of millions or even billions to adapt a commercial turbofan to this application. It would have been far easier to do this with Tays or JT8Ds, but the new Stage 5 noise regulations that take effect in January basically rule out those engines. Boom has told me they might be able to find a way around the regulations, but I’ll believe it when I see it. And I just don’t see how CFM or P&W, which are barely keeping up with civil demand, decide to commit hundreds of engineers to such a risky and technically challenging project at this time.

    3. With a market of 1,000-2,000 aircraft (per Boom, so adjust as you see fit) that’s 5,000-10,000 (ish??) engines over 10-20 years. Hard to believe that investing a billion dollars makes sense amortized over that limited production run and timeline. I’m sure there are some folks doing the math on that. Definitely way easier to take that path versus a clean-sheet design, though.

    4. Of course, there’s no way in hell there’s that much demand for a supersonic, 55-seat airliner, but I understand why Boom tries to exaggerate here. If they deliver 100-200, then sell a similar number of a smaller version to the business jet market they will have hit their target right on the mark.

    5. I still just don’t see how either of those two choices can stand up to the stress of supercruise let alone the stress of supersonic flight without the sustained stress of supercruise. At some point, when you are making an engine work for a strike bomber (which any SST really is) – you are better off using strike bomber engines. I remain fascinated by that part of Boom’s marketing. I still think if they go for it, they’ll have to use considerably larger and less efficient engines to get over the aerodynamic and engineering humps. Reminds me of the discussion of the X-15’s ejection system that can best be summarized as “well, why don’t we just build that and throw away the X-15!”

    6. Why can’t the civil aviation folks design around a military engine? All of the major players in the engine space (GE, RR, PW) have successful military powerplants to work from that can be adapted for civilian use. No doubt they will run into red tape in the form of security disclosures and export problems, but as long as they stay away from the F-22 and F-35 engines (for reasons of supercruise and directional thrust, respectively) there’s no harm in asking.

  3. Seth, I like that you pointed out the questionable nature of many routes shown on Boom’s map, as well as the gap between the aircraft’s range and some routes shown on that same map.

    1. I am still in awe about their projections to go to SYD. Let alone where they would stop? I was researching this last night and the only place anywhere within their 4500 mile circle from both LAX and SYD is PPT. PPT is wildly out of the way. There’s no way that flight takes their unrealistic projected time. Same for NRT, but that one is a little more believable.

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