A return to supersonic commercial flight?

I was taken by surprise at the announcement that United Airlines had placed an order for 15 new supersonic planes that travel at twice the speed of sound, with the possibility for ordering 35 more from a Denver-based company named Boom. The first passenger-carrying flights are scheduled for 2029. What was even more surprising was the claim that these new jets would be free of some of the problems associated with the Concorde that flew from 1976 until 2003, such as excessive noise production and fuel consumption, and would also be “net-zero carbon from day one” and only use sustainable aviation fuels that are derived from waste or organic sources.

There’s also growing work on solving the sonic boom, the startling sound supersonic aircraft produce when they break the sound barrier. NASA is working with Lockheed Martin on a supersonic research aircraft, and the agency told Vox back in 2016 that a “quiet supersonic airplane” could be possible, potentially resolving a major hurdle for these high-speed flights. In January, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced final rules for testing supersonic aircraft, creating a framework for these startups to move forward with flight testing.

To reduce environmental impact, United says Boom planes will use sustainable aviation fuels, but the limited supply of that might be better used on other planes. Research suggests that supersonic planes would require multiple times more fuel per passenger than a typical plane trip, according to Dan Rutherford, director of the International Council on Clean Transportation’s aviation program.

The price of tickets is likely to remain extremely high.

I recall back in those days that there were rumors that the US deliberately made the commercial success of Concorde harder to achieve because the plane was built by the European Airbus company after its US rival Boeing company gave up on the project. By using environmental and noise concerns to ban it flying over the mainland US, this severely limited the number of lucrative routes that the Concorde could make.

Here is a short video history of supersonic flight.


  1. kai0 says

    “ was built by the European Airbus company”
    Well, no. Airbus builds Airbusses. The Concorde was jointly produced by the British Aircraft Corporation and Sud Aviation. However, the descendants of the two companies, British Aerospace and Aérospatiale, are now shareholders in Airbus.

  2. dean56 says

    “The price of tickets is likely to remain extremely high.”

    Ticket prices are already high for some “old fashioned” flights. We had set up a family vacation for me, my wife, and out two sons, for last summer. We had never taken a big one before, and after a family vote it was going to be a trip to Japan for last summer. We had tickets for $1400 US apiece.

    Obviously it didn’t happen. Won’t happen this year either. Currently tickets for equivalent flights and times are just north of $5600 each — roughly a 300% increase.

  3. jrkrideau says

    Ah the good old Concorde. I remember a friend at university telling me about Saudi friends at McGill using it for long weekends. Quick hop on a shuttle from Montréal to New York and home to Riyadh and back in no time.

    Given the Concorde and the Soviet Tu-144 history I am not totally confident about a new supersonic plane but engineering advances may make it feasible.

  4. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    In the 70s I lived a while in a suburb of London that was under the approach path to Heathrow, and we always knew when the Concorde was coming in. Its engine noise was many DB louder than a 747, with a distinctive crackle on top of the roar. Beautiful to see, though. That irrelevant memory aside, the claims from Boom! aviation seem to me mostly vapor. I will be shocked if they do any of the things promised on that schedule.

  5. blf says

    Once, at Heathrow (London), I was on-board a 747 waiting in the queue to take-off, when the pilot announced over the intercom a Concorde would be taking off on the runway next to us. It was LOUD, but the thing which I remember the most is how the 747 shook as it roared by.

    Some years later I was in Bristol for the celebration of John Cabot’s (Giovanni Caboto’s) voyage of “discovery” to N.America. As part of the festivities, an approximation of Cabot’s ship set sail to recreate the voyage. (Almost nothing is known about Cabot’s ship, including it’s name (it’s usually referred as Matthew), so to call the modern-day ship a “replica” is perhaps stretching the term a bit foo far?) Bristol is an inland tidal harbour, with ships having to be towed-in and -out during high tide along the River Avon through the Avon Gorge. The Gorge was unbridged until Isambard Kingdom Brunel, et al., successfully built the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and is considered one of Brunel’s masterpieces. What has all this to do with supersonic flight, or more specifically, Concorde?

    Well… Bristol is where British work on Concorde happened, with (for example) at least the 2nd prototype being built there. That modern-day Cabot ship was towed to the ocean in the traditional manner, by rowing skiff(?). At essentially precisely the moment the ship passed under the Clifton bridge, a (subsonic) low-altitude Concorde deliberately flew overhead along the route of the Gorge towards the ocean: A rather neat (staged (and well-timed!)) celebration of three-ish transport-related Bristol-related accomplishments.

  6. drken says

    I’m going to be very skeptical of this until I see an airline actually take delivery of one and fly it on a regular route. Remember, when the Concorde was first proposed a lot of airlines put in orders. It was only when they discovered how many people it could carry (too few) and how loud it was at approach speeds (too loud), limiting where it could land that they all cancelled. The only airlines that used them were owned by the countries that built it. Even the Soviets eventually grounded their version and they were supposed to be above such capitalist ideas like profitability. The US version was supposed to be bigger, so I guess we could speculate on how successful it would have been, but Nixon (in one of his better ideas) turned off the Gov’t funding spigot, so I guess we’ll never know for sure.

  7. John Morales says


    I’m going to be very skeptical of this until I see an airline actually take delivery of one and fly it on a regular route.

    Why so sceptical? We know it was doable decades ago, so it’s doable now.

    Only question is whether it can be done profitably.

  8. drken says

    “Only question is whether it can be done profitably.”

    That’s the billion dollar question. Are there enough people willing to pay a premium for a faster trip across an ocean? The Concorde had a loyal customer base, but both France and the UK dropped it at the first opportunity, so my guess is that it was mostly a vanity project. I kind of look at it the same way as Elon Musk’s Starship. I have little doubt that a reusable, heavy lift rocket is feasible, it’s whether there’s a sustainable customer base for it other than the NRO and NASA, neither of whom care much about profitability and are currently the only customers for heavy lift rockets.

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