Boom Boom — Can We Bring Supersonic Flights Back?

Leon van der Vyver
6 min readAug 17, 2022


If you’ve ever sat through an international flight, having dinner at 6 am local time, with a screaming toddler behind you, you’ve likely prayed to the airline gods that the flight goes quicker. Fighter jet speeds on a commercial flight? Yes please.

This is the promise of supersonic planes — flying from London to New York in only 3.5 hours, instead of 7. Supersonic refers to flying faster than the speed of sound, also known as Mach 1. This converts to around 767 mph, or 1 325 kph. Commercial airliners cruise between Mach 0.75 — 0.85.

Supersonic flying has been around for more than 80 years, but almost exclusively as military or prototype planes. Only two supersonic planes were ever used in regular passenger service, the British/French Concorde, and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144.

The Concorde is better known as it was more widely used. It could achieve speeds of Mach 2.04 (2 167 kph) which cut the flight time between New York and London to only 3.5 hours, as opposed to around 7 hours on other commercial flights. It flew scheduled flights from 1976 to 2003, significantly longer than the Tupolev Tu-144 which only flew passengers in 1977 and 1978. Only 20 Concordes were ever produced, each carrying between 92 and 120 passengers.

British Airways Concorde

So what happened? Money, or lack thereof, mostly. The Concorde was expensive to develop, operate, and maintain. As advanced as its tech was initially, after 30 years of operation, it had become an outdated plane. With passenger numbers dropping, there was little incentive to upgrade it, or develop new models. Tickets were expensive — adjusted for inflation, a round trip ticket between New York and London cost about $13 500. Airlines, with their thin margins, preferred the more fuel-efficient, higher-capacity airliners that currently grace our skies. A high-profile crash in 2000 (Air France Flight 4590) which killed all 109 on board, also led to lower passenger demand.

Another major factor was the noise generated by the Concorde. There is a misconception that planes flying faster than the speed of sound only produce a single, loud boom. It is, in fact, a continuous sound. This is unacceptable over any built-up areas (which is why Concorde targeted a transatlantic route like London to New York). This meant that the Concorde and other supersonic planes have to slow down over land to below Mach 1, largely diminishing their benefits.

So is there hope for supersonic flights? Maybe, if the noise and cost can be controlled. And some startups, and government departments, are hard at work doing so.

Perhaps the most well know supersonic startup is Boom, based in Colorado, USA. Their initial plane, the XB-1, is aimed at testing some of the technologies that would make commercial supersonic flight a possibility. Last year, they announced their commercial model, Overture. And it is beautiful. The plane will cruise at Mach 1.7, which promises twice the speed of commercial airliners over the ocean, but only a 20% speed increase over land.

Boom Overture Reveal

According to Boom, it will be profitable to deploy Overture on more than 600 routes (a vital statistic for airlines). A ticket between New York and London will, in theory, cost about $5 000 round trip. It will also use 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (a biofuel with a smaller carbon impact), and carry 65–80 passengers. The plane is set to take to the skies in 2026, with commercial flights starting in 2029. If Boom is reading this, please take me along.

Boom Supersonic

United Airlines has already placed an order for 15 Overtures. This month, American Airlines announced that they would purchase 20 planes, with the option to purchase 40 more. Virgin Atlantic announced in 2016 that they would purchase 10 planes. Boom has also partnered with Northrop Grumman to provide “special mission” aircraft to the US military and allies. What exactly this entails is unclear, but a promising development either way.

NASA is also in on the supersonic game. Their program, called Quesst, aims to test new technologies to make supersonic flying quieter. If they can prove their case, this will help lobby for the lifting of the ban on supersonic flights over land. Their experimental plane, X-95, is produced in partnership with Lockheed Martin. It underwent key wind tunnel tests last month, and is set to make its first flight by the end of this year. As part of the development, they will be conducting noise perception field studies by flying the X-95 over land, and asking how much it bothers people. If all goes to plan, the plane is set to produce a thud only as loud as a car door closing.


However, developing an aircraft is hardly something your self-proclaimed angel investor friend with their $500 checks can fund. Take the case of Aerion Supersonic. Their product was the AS2 — capable of flying at Mach 1.4 with 10 passengers. The company had billionaire backers, partners like Boeing and Airbus, and $10 billion in future orders. After 17 years and multiple re-designs it failed to produce even a working prototype, and suddenly seized operations last year.

They were competing with a tough market — the AS2 was expected to cost $120 million a piece. For context, Gulfstream’s G800, the longest-range private jet, can carry 19 passengers, fly further, and costs only $80 million. The question then becomes — if a CEO already has all the amenities to work/sleep on their private jet, what are they going to do with the extra few hours provided by a more expensive, smaller supersonic private jet?

Gulfstream G800

Supersonic flying certainly won’t be competing for price-sensitive economy class passengers. If Boom can live up to their projection of a $5 000 return ticket between London and New York, they would be competing for time-sensitive business/first class passengers. It seems unlikely that they would lure private jet owners — in their case the time saved at the airport, and flexibility of travel, are more important aspects than a few hours saved on flight time.

This does raise another concern with supersonic flights — if you include travel time to the airport, check-in, security clearance and immigration in the total travel time, the benefit of saving a few hours on the actual flight diminishes. One would imagine that Boom and others would have priority/fast track lanes to decrease the total travel time, thereby allowing passengers to arrive much closer to the actual departure time.

Despite these technical and financial challenges, if Boom, or others, can prove their business model by the end of the decade, it could herald a new era of flying. As more airlines, and passengers, adopt supersonic flying, prices would be driven down, making it more accessible to passengers worldwide.