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United Airlines to buy new line of Concorde-like supersonic jets

This concept image shows a Boom Supersonic Overture jet in flight. Boom Supersonic/United Airlines

Here comes the boom.

United Airlines has announced plans to buy a small fleet of supersonic passenger jets, which will be capable of making long-distance flights in half the regular time.

United says it will buy 15 brand-new Overture aircraft from a company called Boom Supersonic, with an option to buy 35 more at a later date. The jets have not yet been built or certified, although Boom hopes they will be ready for commercial use by 2029.

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The aircraft is expected to travel at speeds of Mach 1.7, which would allow it to fly from New York City to London in roughly 3.5 hours.

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Boom says the jets will be net-zero carbon aircraft, and that they will fly on sustainable aviation fuel that is derived from organic matter.

“Boom’s vision for the future of commercial aviation, combined with the industry’s most robust network in the world, will give business and leisure travelers access to a stellar flight experience,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in a news release.

“The world’s first purchase agreement for net-zero carbon supersonic aircraft marks a significant step toward our mission to create a more accessible world,” said Blake Scholl, CEO of the Colorado-based jet builder.

United did not reveal the price tag of the new planes, although an executive did tell the Associated Press that the airline put down a deposit.

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The deal would make United the first airline to run supersonic flights since the days of the Concorde, which flew for a quarter of a century until it was retired in 2003.

British Airways and Air France each ran seven Concorde aircraft, but the flights struggled with high ticket and maintenance costs, and low demand, as well as safety concerns.

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Sentiment soured on the Concorde in 2000, when an Air France jet crashed into a hotel during takeoff after it ran over debris on the runway. The crash killed everyone on the flight and four people on the ground, and critically injured several others.

Aviation companies have been trying to find greener and more cost-efficient ways to build supersonic jets in recent years, with the goal of reviving supersonic flight for the modern era.

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United plans to use the aircraft for ocean-crossing flights out of hubs in New Jersey and San Francisco to start. It’s unlikely that the aircraft would ever be used for domestic flights, as many urban areas have banned supersonic flyovers because of the booming sound they make.

Boom’s CEO says the Overture will not be as loud as the Concorde because it will only make sonic booms over water, “when there’s no one to hear it.”

Mike Leskinen, United’s vice president of corporate development and a former aerospace analyst, said the Boom jet will be 75 per cent cheaper to operate than the Concorde thanks to advancements in engines and lighter fuselages.

Those savings, he said, could make it possible for United to offer both premium and economy seating, but he said no final decisions have been made on cabin layout or ticket prices.

“We are really confident in the future,” Leskinen said. “Aerospace takes a long time to innovate. And so if you don’t start setting these opportunities out now, you will have missed them.”

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Travel analyst Henry Harteveldt says ticket prices were part of the reason the Concorde never really caught on, as the cost was typically one-third higher than conventional jets. He told the Associated Press that the time savings for a supersonic flight might be hard to justify for some customers, particularly when it comes to business travel.

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“Corporate travel managers are going to say, ‘This is really cool, but my (chief financial officer) is screaming at me to put people on Basic Economy fares, not find ways to get them where they’re going faster,’” Harteveldt said.

The Overture is expected to travel at speeds of about 2,100 kilometres per hour while flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet. That would make it much faster than conventional flights, which cruise at 800 km/h, but slower than the Concorde, which flew at 2,180 km/h.

Boom had originally planned to run its first prototype test flight of the supersonic jet in early 2020, but it missed that date and is now targeting late this year or early 2022.

With files from the Associated Press

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