Podcast: American Airlines Goes Supersonic
Nearly two decades after the Concorde was retired, is the rival of supersonic air travel for real?
Welcome to this week's edition of the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Joe Anselmo, Aviation Week's Editorial Director.
Boom Supersonic is having quite a summer. The company unveiled an updated design for its Overture airliner at last month's Farnborough Airshow. Boom also announced a partnership with Northrop Grumman to develop a special mission variant of the Mach 1.7 aircraft for the U.S. government and its allies. This week, Boom announced a firm order for 20 Overtures from American Airlines with options for 40 more. That adds to 15 firm orders the company won from United Airlines in 2021. Japan Airlines also has publicly expressed interest. Boom's ambitious schedule calls for a rollout of the prototype Overture in 2025 and an introduction of supersonic services by the end of the decade on transatlantic and transpacific routes. The company is building a production facility in North Carolina.
So nearly 20 years after the Concorde was retired, is the return of supersonic air travel at hand? Joining me to answer that question and Aviation Week Editors, Guy Norris and Graham Warwick. And we have a special guest today, Richard Aboulafia, a managing director at AeroDynamic Advisory.
Guy, let's start with you. How big a deal is this American order for Boom?
Thanks, Joe. I mean, it's huge from their perspective. Obviously, United's order last year was a critical breakthrough in terms of credibility, as far as the market was concerned. For American to follow up and in doing so become the biggest single customer, depending on your perspective and how firm a firm order really is, regardless of that, in terms of sheer numbers, an order for up to 60 aircraft, 20 firm, 40 option is a big deal in anybody's book. So, I think from a big market perspective picture, this is huge for Boom. There's no denying it. We can go into the details of the realism on this, but from a big picture, look at the market, you can't really understate the size of this and the value of it to Boom.
Richard, we've often brought you on this podcast to talk about advanced air mobility, which you're a bit of a skeptic of, at least in terms of the market size. Do you feel any different about supersonic air travel? Do you think you're going to be flying on a Boom to London in 2029?
In my wildest imagination, sure. I mean, all of us as av geeks really would love to fly supersonically. However, I don't think from a market standpoint it's in the cards. As a matter of fact, pick up where Guy left off, I agree with him completely except replace ‘market’ with ‘marketing.’ This program appears to be catnip for the marketing department and not a lot else.
We talk about nonrefundable deposits. We don't know how big they are -- putting aside to the fact that it's really hard to place firm orders when there's no engine. And therefore you can't guarantee performance because you don't have any engine to provide performance specifications. Then you're back to, okay, what would they have paid? Okay, let's put this relative to say buying a full page ad in any number of publications. This is fantastic. American gets its name out there. United gets its name out there. Boom gets its name out there for a relatively nominal sum of money relative to that kind of marketing. I'm not so sure there's a whole lot else at work here.
Guy, let's answer Richard's question. I mean, Boom had been talking with Rolls- Royce about an engine and you and I thought we might hear more about that at the Farnborough show. We didn't. So, this airplane still doesn't have an engine, does it?
No, it doesn't. I mean, and Richard's absolutely right in that regard. The thing is, [let’s] just drill down a bit to some fundamentals here. The basic Boom concept of coming back to the faster than sound speed travel market is a great one in terms of 50 years; worth of new technology which you can bring to that. That does include engine technology and we mustn't forget that. The new design which they unveiled at the show at Farnborough is a much more realistic attempt at actually achieving something which can meet modern noise restrictions, because you can take off at lower power settings and land at lower power settings, because you're spreading the power over four engines and you can also do a lot more in terms of lift over drag. You can increase the performance of the wing. You can actually take off and land at lower speeds and so on and so forth.
So, the design which they've got now is much more pragmatic and realistic than it was say, last year, when we're all looking at this Concorde-like shape. So if you imagine an integrated propulsion system as part of that, you're talking about something which is feasible and doable in today's technology. What we don't know is who's going to do it and we don't know who's going to pay for it. And those are the sort of issues which I think just got to be key to the realistic... Is this a realistic project?
Now talking to Blake Scholl, who obviously is the founder and CEO of Boom, he's obviously got something under his hat. He doesn't want to talk about it yet, but he's saying that the technology options that are out there are available and he feels like the real focus is not really the actual engine itself, although everybody wants to know what it is. He's talking about the business model of operating the engine. That suggests to me that there is something going on, that he has got a lot of confidence and that American would not have put their name to this order had they not been told something also in confidence at this point, that there was a real substantial project to do the propulsion system underway. So, I don't know. I wish I knew more, but from now on my focus is trying to find out more about the business model for the operation of the engine, assuming that we have a supplier of it.
Graham, let's bring you into the conversation. I was looking through our archives and 25 years ago, Aviation Week did a cover story on the future of supersonics. Obviously the Concorde was flying then. NASA had a High Speed Civil Transport research program. The Europeans were talking about a larger successor to the Concorde. What happened to supersonic and how far off is the return of supersonic travel?
If you look back in history, what everybody thought we were going to do was get bigger after Concorde. So Concorde I think was 100 seats. And all of those studies you talk about were all [about] getting bigger airplanes, 200, 300 seats, transpacific range. And I think just generally people eventually came to the conclusion that the mass market would not pay for speed.
So, what you've seen is that the folks that are looking at next-generation supersonic had gone the other way. They've said -- like Aerion tried to do with the supersonic business jet – ‘Let's go down to business jet size.’ British Airways did some studies that said, ‘If we could get to 50 seats, we could make a good transatlantic shuttle.’ Boom, I think they move around a bit, but they're a bit smaller than Concorde and they're aiming at the business market, premium transatlantic passenger market type thing.
So the real difference is this realization that the mass market won't pay for speed, so you have to have something that's going to appeal to the premium market. The other thing that's happened obviously is where's the money coming from? So if you go back in time, it was the McDonnell Douglas' of this world. It was the Aerospatiale’s of this world that were doing the studies of these next-generation supersonic airplanes. Today, it's startups. None of the big companies are doing any serious studies of supersonic airplanes, it's the startups. And therefore what you see is this weird distortion of... With a cart coming in front of the horse.
When it comes to orders versus having an airplane, we all know that Boeing and Airbus all go through a process of defining an aircraft, getting performance that they can guarantee and sign up to getting authority to offeran airplane and then going and signing contracts with a customer. The customer knows what the airplane is supposed to do. They know when it's supposed to be delivered. There are penalties associated with not doing either of those things and they sign a contract.
When you talk about startups, it's not just supersonic, it's from advanced air mobility all the way to hypersonic transport. Startups do it the other way around. They basically come up with a concept. They tell a story, they get somebody to sign something, usually a letter of intent or a memorandum of understanding, that they can then take to the bank or to the private investor and get the money to do what they want to do. So that's what you're seeing. So American and United have signed up to an aircraft publicly that has no engine and therefore we can have no performance guarantees until we know what that engine is and that engine is capable of.
But Boom, as a startup, could not raise the billions needed to develop this airplane or convince an engine manufacturer to go out on a limb and develop the engine unless they had serious customer interest. So, we are seeing the cart is very much running down the hill ahead of the horse, which is facing the other way. And we don't know how this is going to come out, but it's a weird facet of the industry that's a result of startups being in the driving seat that we are seeing things kind of reversed from the way they normally happen.
Richard, as Graham was talking, you've been nodding your head in agreement.
Yeah. I mean, it's the highest molecular density of truth that I've heard in a while. Well done there, Graham. The one thing that hits me is what's the characteristic of our economy these days? It's way too much cash chasing too few good ideas that results in this cart getting before the horse and nobody caring much about technical details. The other thing that hits me is you've got this Silicon Valley funding model where you've got all these VC funds out there. They all throw $10 or $20 million at dozens if not hundreds of different targets. Most of them will fizzle away, but one becomes an Uber and that's how that fund makes its money, that Amazon or whatever.
And as a result, you've got these funds who are willing to give Boom $10 million here, $20 million there, it adds up to enough for a really nice chalet and a bunch of really cool drawings. Not enough to do anything like, I don't know, advanced design and development or funding an engine or anything like that, but enough to make a go of it and make it almost look like a real program and get in the face of a bunch of airline managers who find it utterly irresistible from a marketing perspective to pay a few hundred K for the cheapest form of advertising on the planet.
So I take it, you see that there is not a market for supersonic travel to come back?
Well, it's a little frustrating Joe, because I would've predicted, and I think I did predict decades ago that a supersonic business jet seemed like it had something. And that's why Aerion, which was an extremely, I think in a lot of ways, very honest program, it just going away like that was a little bit strange to me. I would've thought there would be some kind of business case for market and marketing back to the Northrop Grumman play at Farnborough. If there was a special mission or military application, it would be for a business jet. So, I was surprised that something hasn't happened over the past 30 years, it's been well over 30, actually 40 years since people started proposing a supersonic business jet.
Now in terms of scheduled air transport supersonic, oh God, no. Ron Davies, former McDonnell Douglas, former Air and Space Museum now sadly passed away, but he wrote a great chapter in his book, Fallacies and Fantasies of Air Transport, that talk about the fundamental problem. There just aren't enough city pairs with enough premium traffic. You could take one of these, put it in service on New York, London, Washington, Paris, whatever, enough to justify 30, 40, 50 of these jets. It's just that after that you're run out of city pairs. You're just not going to get 80 high rollers paying 12 grand a pop or whatever on enough city pairs to justify the creation production of a bespoke air vehicle for scheduled air transport.
It's hard to disagree with some of that. And just from Boom's perspective, I mean, they've said that obviously they've identified as many as 600 potential routes or sets of city pairs, which are available on oceanic routes. But I think that the other thing is they're saying that because their technology is targeting a much lower operating cost than we've seen traditionally, but I mean, let's face it, we've only had Concorde to compare against any of this. It was a remarkable engineering feat in its time, as we know, but it was hopelessly unsustainable, both from an economic and environmental perspective. So, we’ve got to adjust our sights slightly on that basis. But they are saying that their operating costs could be more like today's business class tickets rather than having to attract the upper 1% of people who would normally be flying on their own personal business jet.
So they do have this sort of broader market approach, which Concorde couldn't sustain or even approach. The other thing I think is quite interesting is that there's a sort of a potential ‘me too’ thing going on here, because look at what happened in the early 1960s between I think June of '63 and the end of that year, so over just about six months, Concorde attracted orders, well, they were really reservations with production line slots for over 30 models over six months. Basically, because every airline suddenly thought, ‘Well, hang on, I'm not going to be left out of this. If my competitor's offering supersonic opportunities, we can't be left behind.; So it'll be interesting to see if, as we get into the rest of this year and next, whether that happens as well. So just a thought anyway.
Yeah. Interesting, Guy made the comment earlier about the business model side of the engine equation. And that does intrigue me because we all know the engine industry is looking for a new business model because the one they've got is broken. They can't make any money selling the engine, they can only make money supporting the engine and they can't make engines fast enough when they're losing money on building them. It just is sort of like a nutso way of doing business. So, if you've got a completely new market and completely new type of demand on propulsion, maybe there is an opportunity. These engines are going to be consumed at a high rate because sustained supersonic transport flight is hot and high engine temperatures mean short life. So, maybe you are a Rolls-Royce looking at some sort of a leasing life cycle thing here where you accept that the engine's going to come back multiple times and the airline doesn't own the engine, but pays you some upfront big amount of money to keep that engine in service. And therefore you control the entire life cycle.
I don't know, maybe that's what's going on here. It's an opportunity to change the way you do business. The other thing I want to just mention is sustainability, right? This seems so going the wrong way because supersonic airplanes will consume way more fuel. But the fact is the whole industry has bigger fish to fry. That the whole industry's facing this sustainability issue, we have to tackle it. I think supersonic will bring something to the front quicker and that is a hundred percent sustainable aviation fuel is not enough. They're going to have to say your airplane will have a hundred percent sustainable aviation fuel, but every kilogram of CO2 that that engine puts into the air, we will remove by some other means. Carbon capture and sequestration.
think the only way that aviation in the long term is going to get there is by combining SAF with carbon removal so that every kilogram that goes out gets taken out. But I think that supersonic will bring that to a head. I just don't think you can go into service in 2030 without a plan to remove every kilogram of CO2 that that airplane produces. Actively remove it from the atmosphere or the customer is going to say ‘No way.’
We're running short on time, but Guy, I wanted to give you the last word on this. I also wanted to point out for our listeners that you and I went to Boom in April and sat down with Blake Scholl and he makes the case on that podcast, if people want to go back, how they are indeed in his view, going to be able to do supersonic sustainably, which sounds like a misnomer, but he explains that on that podcast. But Guy let's give you the last word.
Just following on from what Graham was saying. I think the sustainability aspect of it is obviously massive for this program because as you quite rightly say, coming in at maybe the wrong time in an era when everybody's looking at carbon reduction. One of the things that they are particularly saying is that the chemistry, the particular chemistry that's available or will be available through these new generation of SAFs might also be applicable to removing things like nitrous oxides. And because they don't have aeromatics, then you've kind of got the lower potential of contrails too.
But the things that really bedeviled Concorde and the upper atmosphere deposition of these chemicals, particularly nitrous oxides, as well as carbon dioxide and the longevity of those in the above the tropopause in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, those are areas which they actually say they still have an argument. They can actually use this new chemistry, tailor it for the first time. That's never been possible and in a potentially counter or at least alleviate those impacts. So anyway, it's a whole new ball game, basically. We don't know all the answers.
I know I said I'd give you the last word, but I can't resist asking Richard a final question. Richard, based on what you just heard, is there anything in this conversation that alleviated your skepticism just a tiny bit?
No. I mean, it just seems, maybe I'm looking at this in the classic hammer in search of a nail sort of way, but from an economics perspective, I just don't see any way to make this happen. The SAF argument, I think is interesting, although it does make me reflect on that moment at Farnborough. We were all there and you're walking around. Everyone is obsessed with sustainability and the tarmac’s melting down and Britain appears to be turning into Dubai North. And here you've got these guys with a four-engine love child of Concorde and the B-58 Bomber [saying] ‘Well, someone else will give us SAF and that'll make it all okay.’ That was kind of bizarre.
Richard Aboulafia, Guy Norris, Graham Warwick, thanks to all you for your time. Bringing the three of you together always generates very interesting discussion, and you did not disappoint today. That is a wrap for this week's Check 6. Special thanks to our producer in New York, Alex Harrell.
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