The Future of Supersonics: a crash before take-off?

We were talking to you recently about a possible return to supersonic flight. A comeback subject to many conditions and it seems that today the clouds are beginning to gather on the project, perhaps in a way already prohibitive.

Boom Supersonic

We told you about it at the beginning of the summer: United had decided to embark on the renewal of the supersonic adventure thanks to the Overture, an aircraft designed by the startup Boom Supersonic.

The aircraft will carry 88 passengers at Mach 1.7 and will be the first aircraft designed to be totally carbon neutral.

United was recently joined by American Airlines.

At the time we were of course excited about the project but with one major drawback: the plane still had to fly. And to fly it needs engines.

Rolls Royce throws in the towel

Indeed to date no prototype of the Overture has flown yet so we are only talking about a promise on paper. For such a project to become a reality, and we saw it with the Concorde in its time, not only is it necessary to have engineering marvels to conceive the aircraft as a whole (although enormous progress has been made since then) but it is especially necessary to have adapted engines. And Rolls Royce was to supply them.

But the engine manufacturer recently indicated that it had put an end to its collaboration with Boom on the grounds that, after having carried out and delivered a certain number of studies, the supersonic market did not appear to be a priority.

“We’ve completed our contract with Boom and delivered various engineering studies for their Overture supersonic program,” […]. “After careful consideration, Rolls-Royce has determined that the commercial aviation supersonic market is not currently a priority for us and, therefore, will not pursue further work on the program at this time. It has been a pleasure to work with the Boom team and we wish them every success in the future.”

What to think about it?

We think that if Rolls Royce engaged in the project at the beginning it is all the same that they believed in it. So this turnaround may seem odd unless something else has come up in the meantime that justifies this turnaround: environmental constraints, production costs, re-evaluation of the market size or even doubts about Boom’s ability to industrialize the product.

What we think is that Rolls Royce found the idea promising on paper and took advantage of this partnership to explore it without engagement instead of launching the project alone without knowing if an aircraft manufacturer would one day be interested in the engine.

Moreover, the words used say a lot. The text says “completed” and not “terminated”. Rolls Royce has accomplished its mission and will make no further engagement. In case of a clean break at their initiative they would have said “terminated”.

For Rolls Royce it was certainly only an exploratory phase with no commitment, which Boom sold as a long-term commitment to reassure potential customers.

In short, today the Overture has no engines, which is not a real change, but it has no partner working on the subject and this is a real problem in view of a launch in 2029.

OAG does not believe in supersonics

But industry analysts also seem skeptical that there is a market for such aircrafts. In any case, this is the case of OAG, whose Chief Analyst gave his opinion to Phocus Wire.

He basically says that there is no mass market for supersonic travel, that it would only be a niche market that the sector cannot afford and that between the COVID and the crisis that is coming, the market has dropped by about 30%.

It also raises the question of the promise of an environmentally neutral fuel that we do not know how to produce or distribute on a large scale today.

He believes more in vertical take-off.

An analysis that makes a lot of sense even if, as history proves, it is often the market that creates the demand and that sustainable fuel is the “easily accessible” step that will allow us to wait until electric or hydrogen… or something else. It will slowly but surely become a standard.

As for the market, it is undeniably right. There is no doubt that there is a clientele to fly supersonic for prices equivalent to those of an expensive business class but not enough to fill the planes ordered by United and American Airlines.

Although his reasoning deserves to be qualified: he only talks about business travelers. A totally logical prism if we think about the connections between the American North-East and Europe, but it is to be put into perspective. Depending on the time and the route, it is not uncommon to see business cabins heavily filled with leisure travelers. Ben Smith recently acknowledged that 50% of Air France’s business and first class customers are leisure travelers in the premium segment.

In short, yes, there is certainly a market, but if this market is large and profitable enough to justify investing in such a program, there is a real risk involved.

What can United and American Airlines lose?

The question that arises is what the airlines that have committed to buy the Overture can lose. The answer is simple: nothing.

Today they have taken an option to be present on this market if it is created. If the aircraft sees the light of day, they will be pioneers, otherwise it will have cost them nothing.

And in the meantime it gives them publicity, which was perhaps the only objective.

Bottom line

To this day we don’t know if the Overture will see the light of day because of the lack of an engine or if there is a real market for supersonic flight in the future. Nothing new: we don’t know the reality of a market by doing studies but by confronting the offer and the demand the day the offer exists. We saw this for the A380.

In the meantime, this allows some airlines to be talked about, some entrepreneurs to make people dream and we will see what will happen in 2029.

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrinhttp://www.duperrin.com
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.
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