Coldplay singer Chris Martin once pontificated about birds flying faster than the speed of sound.
In theory, that sounds very nice. But the practical realities of supersonic flight, which is to say literally flying faster than the speed of sound, aren’t nearly as romantic as Martin makes them out to be.
Yes, you get there a lot faster, but the fuel costs are sky high, as is the cost of developing supersonic aircrafts. This leads to much higher ticket prices. Then there’s the matter of the sonic booms the crafts make when they take off.
After decades of development, the first Western commercial supersonic aircraft, the Concorde, was introduced in 1976, with a flight between London and Paris. In America, Congress had banned them for commercial use. (A Russian equivalent, the Tupolev Tu-144, was introduced in 1968 and phased out in 1999)
The ban was lifted in 1977, and the Concorde was able to offer flights from London to New York in less than three hours, with tickets going for as much $10,000 a seat.
But the Concorde was still subject to complaints about the excessive noise created by the sonic boom, which was often likened to an explosion, and environmentalists protested the excessive fuel use the crafts required, and that the sulphuric acid particles it emitted damaged the ozone layer. Eventually, the Concorde was discontinued in 2003.
But now it seems like American Airlines (AAL) wants to once again try to get supersonic.
American Airlines Is Interested In Supersonic Planes
American Airlines has announced plans to put down a deposit to purchase 20 supersonic jets with the option to buy up to 20 more, from the privately-owned company Boom Supersonic.
The financial details of the sale were not announced, and the purchase is subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration and foreign regulators. This isn’t a sure bet by any means, but it’s also theoretically possible.
The FAA states on its website that it's currently working to establish parameters for viable Supersonic Transport (SST). As FAA states:
“The FAA is initiating two rulemaking activities on civil supersonic aircraft noise. The first activity is a proposed rule for noise certification of supersonic aircraft, and the second is a proposed rule to streamline and clarify the procedures to obtain special flight authorization for conducting supersonic flight-testing in the United States.”
Should the deal be approved, then Boom’s craft the Overture could carry 65 to 80 passengers at nearly twice the speed of sound. The cost of a ticket on one of these flights is currently unknown, but will likely be sky high.
“Looking to the future, supersonic travel will be an important part of our ability to deliver for our customers,” said Derek Kerr, American’s Chief Financial Officer. “We are excited about how Boom will shape the future of travel both for our company and our customers.”
The company notes that the Overture could possibly fly from Miami to London in less than five hours and Los Angeles to Honolulu in three hours.
Pending approval, the first vehicles will be ready for testing in 2025, and if all goes well, Boom believes the flights could be available for commercial use by 2029. The first prototype is said to be ready later this year.
It’s Unclear If This Will Happen
Now that the effects of climate change are too readily apparent to ignore, environmental concerns are harder to ignore than ever, as seen by the record-breaking climate bill recently signed by President Biden.
In addition to getting the sonic boom level under control, Boom Supersonic will need to convince both regulators, environmental activists and a skeptic public that supersonic flights won’t cause further harm to the environment.
The FAA notes on its site that the Concorde was retired in part because of “inefficient fuel consumption, and other factors” and “In the area of supersonic aircraft noise, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continually works to ensure the United States keeps pace with latest scientific, technological, and environmental advancements to maintain the safest, most efficient, and advanced airspace system in the world.”
So it’s entirely unclear whether this will happen or not, as there’s steep hurdles for American Airlines and Boom Supersonic to clear.
But who knows, maybe one day Chris Martin will literally be able to fly faster than the speed of sound. Those birds will certainly be jealous.