How Will COVID-19 Affect Supersonic Commercial Aircraft Development?

supersonic jet
Credit: Aerion Supersonic

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How will the COVID-19 crisis affect development of supersonic commercial aircraft?

Aviation Week Executive Editor, Technology, Graham Warwick responds: 

The renaissance of supersonic air travel was slowing down even before COVID-19 hit, delayed by a combination of technical, financial and other factors. Aerion has pushed back the scheduled first flight on its Mach 1.4 business jet, the AS2, to 2024 and its entry into service to 2026. Boom Supersonic has slipped the first flight of its XB-1 third-scale demonstrator to 2021 and now says its planned Mach 2.2 airliner, the Overture, will fly in the mid-2020s and enter service at the end of the decade.

These delays, announced before the crisis hit and unrelated to the novel coronavirus pandemic, mean new supersonic aircraft should be coming onto the market after aviation has recovered. But there could yet be further slippage in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, not least because both startups still need to raise more money to get to market.

Provided the industry resumes its previous growth, the market rationale for these aircraft should be unchanged. Both startups are betting that some wealthy individuals and business travelers will be prepared to pay more to save time by flying supersonically. They now also believe that high-net-worth individuals and corporate executives will prefer shorter journey times to reduce potential exposure in a post-pandemic air transport market.

Of the two, Aerion is further along, having begun work back in 2004. The startup has been on a stronger footing since Boeing agreed in February 2019 to provide financial and engineering support. As a result of Boeing’s involvement, Aerion in April unveiled a substantially redesigned AS2. In May, it picked Melbourne, Florida, as the location for a $300 million development and production facility.

Boom has so far raised $241 million, which is significant, but that is a fraction of the money required to develop a supersonic airliner. The funding is going toward the XB-1 demonstrator, which is to be flown at Edwards AFB, California, to provide the configuration and reduce the risk for the Overture airliner.

When it comes to developing the 55-75-seat Overture, Boom has yet to secure either an engine supplier or airframe partner—two key milestones Aerion has already achieved. The impact of the pandemic on the commercial aerospace industry is unlikely to have made finding either any easier, but the development delay gives Boom more time.

If and when supersonic travel returns, it is expected to be led by smaller aircraft—business jets and small airliners—not only because they will cost less to develop but because lighter aircraft present less of a technical challenge with regard to noise and emissions.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.