The iconic Concorde, the world’s first — and to date, last — supersonic commercial passenger jet, took its final transatlantic voyage on October 24, 2003. Taking off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, it flew to London’s Heathrow Airport in less than four hours, around half the time it takes today’s commercial airliners. For its historic, last ever flight, passengers on the British Airways jet included actress Joan Collins, supermodel Christie Brinkey, and a couple from Ohio who splashed out $60,000 on eBay to buy their tickets.
It was the end of an era, a crowd of well-wishers gathering in London to view what felt, in some ways, like the end of the future: The conclusion to a dream in which flights took place in a commercial jet that flew faster than a bullet, faster than the Earth rotated.
At the time, Blake Scholl was working at Amazon. He had started a couple of years earlier, in 2001, but had recently been upgraded from his initial job title as a software engineer, to a management position. Close to two decades on, Scholl is the founder and CEO of Boom Supersonics, a company that, in his words, is all about trying to continue what Concorde began. At present, it employs 150 people and has received backing from the likes of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
“I think of Concorde really as the story of a journey started, but not yet completed, of a big vision,” Scholl told Digital Trends. “For a variety of reasons, it fell short. [It shut down before people could] iterate and improve on it. We see ourselves as kind of picking up where Concorde left off, and building on that amazing technological legacy.”
Building the future
In October 2020, Boom showed off a one-third scale model of its riff on the supersonic jet, a futuristic lawn dart of an airplane called the XB-1, as smooth as a salesman’s tongue. In Francis Spufford’s excellent book Backroom Boys, the author describes Concorde as looking “as if a crack [had] opened in the fabric of the universe, and a message from tomorrow … poked through.” XB-1, which is itself a demonstrator model prelude to a larger future plane called the Overture, resembles Spufford’s description — with another half-century tacked on for good measure.
“There are myriad fundamental improvements in aircraft technology that have happened since Concorde was designed in the ’60s,” said Scholl. “We’ve gone from aluminum to carbon fiber composites. We’ve gone from afterburn turbojets to clean, quiet, efficient turbofan engines. We’ve gone from having to develop aerodynamic wind tunnels — where your every iteration takes months and costs millions — to aerodynamic development through simulations, where you can test thousands of designs. [It means you] can arrive at an airplane design that is fundamentally more efficient as it moves through the air, and therefore requires less fuel and is less expensive to operate. If you take all those and add them up, it’s about a three-quarters reduction in cost versus Concorde.”
Cost savings are pretty crucial when it comes to building out supersonic infrastructure. Concorde cost the French and British governments a total of $2.8 billion to get off the ground, both figuratively and literally, in 1969 — the same year as the first moon landing. It never recouped those costs, even if British Airways and Air France, the two airlines who bought Concordes for their fleet, scratched out the odd profitable quarters here and there from it.
Still, while it was beloved by celebrities, business people, and those other lucky few who could afford to fly it, Concorde was not necessarily a favorite among accountants. At least, not those who had to tally its profits and losses.
Supersonic travel on a budget
“At the end of the day, the single biggest challenge with Concorde was that it cost about $20,000 in today’s money for a ticket,” Scholl said. “For the vast, vast, vast majority of people, that’s kind of a bucket list, wish list, kind of item; it’s not transportation. For supersonic to really change the way we all get around the planet, you have to get the cost down to the point that a lot more people can afford to take advantage of it.”
Initially, Scholl said, Overture flights will be equivalent to a business class flight. However, those prices, he believes, will come down even further. In fact, he’s convinced that it’s possible to reach a point at which the fastest flight is also the most affordable. It will be cheaper to travel by supersonic jet than to not do it. At least by present standards in transportation, that seems downright paradoxical. But Scholl is convinced that it can work. Shorter flights mean less time in the sky, which means more journeys every day. It’s the same argument used by theater owners, who have at times pushed for shorter movies because that means more screenings and, therefore, more punters per day.
Lower costs for the aircraft and its running costs don’t just translate to cheaper flights, either. It will also allow the team at Boom to sell more aircraft to airlines, vastly expanding the number of routes it can offer when compared to Concorde. The more units can be produced, the lower the manufacturing costs will be. Unlike Concorde’s regular London-to-New York route — a flight that Scholl said “barely made sense” on its own — Boom plans to operate on hundreds of routes. London to Dubai. Seattle to Shanghai. Tokyo to San Francisco. The list goes on.
“There are many, many, many routes where you can cut the flight times in half, which generally means the passengers can leave a whole day later, and still get there in time for their meeting or their trip,” he said. Japan Airlines has already pre-ordered 20 of the Overture aircraft.
The supersonic renaissance?
A fair question is to ask whether now is truly the best time to be launching a new, next-generation aircraft. It’s no coincidence that Concorde’s demise came not too long after 9/11. Among the myriad reverberations of that tragic event was the fact that far fewer people elected to fly. According to the International Air Transport Association, 9/11 resulted in a “large temporary impact” that caused travel demand to crater following the attack.
Daniel Roeska, a Bernstein Research transportation analyst, has described travel during the COVID-19 era as having a “9/11 feel” in terms of demand. In some cases, travel is barred by measures set out to limit the transmission of the coronavirus. But, even without these blocks, it’s tough to imagine the world readily leaping back into the fray of air travel once everything settles down.
Scholl believes that things will get moving again, though. The first XB-1 demo flight will take place this year. However, the Overture will not take to the skies until 2026, and no commercial flight is planned until 2029. He pointed to the fact that “COVID aside” there has been “more and more and more” travel in recent decades. Telecommunication tools such as Zoom — the current substitute for many an international meet-up — are great, but they’re not a substitute for actually being there in person. Even if tools like Zoom get more sophisticated (think virtual reality, for instance), it could wind up making the case for travel, especially high-speed travel, even more compelling.
“I [actually] think the more the more telecom advances, the more frustration we will have with bad high friction travel experiences,” he said. ‘People will clamor for experiences that are faster, that are easier, that are less of a hassle … Short of having a teleporter, we won’t quite get there as easily as clicking a Zoom call. But that’s the direction to head in terms of frictionless travel.”
The journey there should be quite the one to keep an eye on. As anyone who ever saw a Concorde flight will know, even watching from the ground can be exciting. Bring on what Scholl calls the supersonic renaissance.
“Our long-range mission is to make the world dramatically more accessible by building successive generations of travel that are faster, more affordable, and more convenient than what we have today,” he said. “That’s obviously a mission that will keep us busy for decades, if not for centuries. But our first real step forward toward that is the Overture airliner.”