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Airlines Faster Than The Speed Of Sound

By Aaitijhya Goswami

What do you think about breaking the sound barrier the next time you travel by air? Supersonic airlines sound like a very cool concept, but there are a lot of implications to it. But just in case you didn’t know…

It has already been done.

The Concorde was a supersonic airliner used by British Airways and Air France between 1976 and 2003. And the Tupolev Tu-144. was its Soviet counterpart which operated 1975-1999. They were both retired due to various complications, but in August 2022, American Airlines announced that it would purchase 20 supersonic airplanes – manufactured by Boom Supersonic, an American aviation company. These aircraft (called Overtures) would be twice as fast as the current fastest airliners at speeds of Mach 1.7 (2099.16 km/h). They could be commercially available as early as 2029, but will they be different from their predecessors? Let’s compare.

The first and biggest question would be its fuel efficiency. Due to the travel speed, the Concorde consumed significantly more fuel than its subsonic brethren (for example, a Boeing 747-400. It used up 4 times more fuel than a Boeing 747-400, while carrying just 100 passengers, less than a quarter of 747-400’s passenger size. As expected, a Concorde round trip ticket from New York to London cost about $12,500 in today’s money. Well, the Overture is expected to be net-zero carbon and optimized to run on 100% sustainable fuel. But since the airplane hasn’t been released yet these claims cannot be verified. And for the price? It’s too early for airlines to say, but Boom Supersonic predicts $5000 per seat, with each Overture carrying 64-80 passengers.

Now if you have watched enough movies, you are accustomed to the sonic boom that occurs when the sound barrier is broken. Supersonic flight is illegal in some countries (including the US) because these sonic booms are deemed disruptive. So supersonic planes can only be supersonic when traveling over water. This was a problem for the Concorde since it was quite inefficient at subsonic speeds. However, the Overture has over 600 routes over water (allowing for supersonic speed), and is 20% faster than other aircraft over land. NASA is also working on reducing the sonic boom to just about as loud as shutting a car door, but this is for a separate project (X-59 QueSST jet). Maybe we would see some adaptations in the Overture later on?

The Concorde also wasn’t the most comfortable airline. With the high price tag, customers were still cramped in the plane, and it was extremely noisy. They however tried to make up for this with stellar on-board service (and I hear their meals were exquisite too). Overture has promised to make the entire flying experience a memorable one, and is going to feature a completely differently designed interior, with 1 seat on each side of the slender cabin.

One more priority for Overture would be safety. The accident where a Concorde crashed into a hotel (leading to the death of 113 people) was one of the factors that ended its operation. Overture would need to be technologically optimized to ensure its safety.

Over 130 Overtures have been purchased by different airlines around the world. But even with its tempting features, one might still wonder what reception to supersonic travel would be. With the high price tag, it seems to be more of a luxury experience. But a lot is yet to be disclosed and finalized with the Overture. And until 2029, we can only wait to know if supersonic flight would be making a return.

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