The Concorde was an iconic supersonic plane that entered service in 1976 and was retired 27 years later in 2003. This commercial airplane, which carried 92 to 128 passengers for Air France and British Airways, was unique in many ways and created an appeal that few airplanes before it achieved.
Perhaps it was the downward-facing nose cone or the full-body wing design. Most likely, though, it was the allure of air travel at Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound.
A Concorde made one trip to Denver during its years of service: In 1997, when it carried then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Denver Summit of the Eight meeting with then-President Bill Clinton and other world leaders.
The challenge that the Concorde had was that supersonic speeds could only be used during flight while over the ocean where the “sonic boom” couldn’t be heard by people on land below.
In addition to the Concorde’s speed restriction over populated areas, operational and logistical costs prevented the aircraft from becoming an economically viable option for airlines.
The Concorde demonstrated that the commercial market was not yet ready for an aircraft with higher operating costs when the aviation industry competes on high performance at the lowest cost.
There were differences between a commercial aircraft capable of flying at supersonic speeds and the commonly utilized narrow body and business jet aircraft. These differences were with the airplane’s range limitations, regulatory approvals (on engine sound) and various structural design issues such as skin temperature.
These limitations, along with supporting the aircraft in the aftermarket and total cost of ownership for airlines, were far greater than for similar-sized traditional airplanes.
But over the last few years, we have seen a resurgence in supersonic flight interest with startups like metro-Denver-based Boom Technology, as well as Nevada-based Aerion Corp. and Boston-based Spike Aerospace. These companies are forming strong partnerships with larger aerospace companies such as Boeing and Collins Aerospace.
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Significant investments and funding are being secured by these companies, which also are tapping into industry talent for leadership and board roles to ensure future success. Government entities such as the U.S. Air Force and NASA are also participating in development activities with these companies.
These activities will ensure that the companies understand the factors that led to the Concorde’s failure and enable development of an innovative airplane with acceptable operating costs.
Investment bank UBS estimates a potential total mark for supersonic aircraft of $340 billion through 2040.
Boom Technologies, which operates at Centennial Airport in Arapahoe County, plans to provide larger airlines with a smaller airplane capable of supersonic speeds. Aerion and Spike Aerospace are developing new commercial aircraft that will initially target the business-jet segment.
Spike Aerospace is developing the S-512, which promises to carry up to 18 passengers and fly at Mach 1.6. Despite having consolidated fewer partnerships, Spike plans to offer a business jet-sized aircraft that will have a quieter engine to meet the regulatory requirements for flying over land. The cost competition will be strong in this segment, with likely only a small reduction in travel time for the proposed routes.
Aerion has presented an airplane design called the AS2 business jet, capable of carrying a maximum of 12 passengers at a speed of Mach 1.4. The AS3 small airliner was recently announced which will build upon the AS2 design, seat 50 passengers and will fly at Mach 4 speed.
Aerion is focusing on overseas flights that will serve the business jet market. The reduction in travel time overseas will be appealing for business travelers, but the costs of these routes might outweigh what business travelers are willing to pay for this service.
NetJets, the private-aviation unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., recently signed a deal with Aerion to buy 20 AS2 jets for delivery as early as 2027.
Boom Technologies is developing an airplane called Overture capable of carrying 65 to 88 passengers for larger commercial airlines that can fly at Mach 2.
Boom Technologies is focusing on overseas flights because of the supersonic boom regulations. Unlike competitors, the Overture is a larger airplane that will have more options with carriers worldwide.
The economics of this aircraft will likely become better over time as there will be higher production rates and eventual lower cost of ownership for the airlines. Boom has already gained some aircraft pre-orders and may also sell a future derivative of the Overture to the U.S. Air Force.
In my view, Boom currently has the widest market for sales opportunity to more airline operators, the ability to scale production of their aircraft, and the capability to service the airplane in the aftermarket, which give it several advantages over its current competitors.
Regardless of who wins the race and market share to carry passengers at supersonic speeds, there is now a high likelihood that these projects can be successful due to advanced engineering capabilities, investments, partnerships and leadership at the companies.
The Concorde will be a distant memory when these airplanes fly in the future.
Alex Krutz is the managing director at Patriot Industrial Partners, an aerospace and defense advisory firm that focuses on manufacturing and supply chain.
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