Are travelers ready to take supersonic flights once again, nearly 20 years after the famed Concorde jet took its last trip across the Atlantic? That could come down to how expensive the tickets are.
In a blockbuster announcement Thursday, United Airlines
signaled it’s ready to revive supersonic air travel. The airline has agreed to purchase 15 supersonic jets from Boom Technology, an aerospace start-up company based in Denver.
The aircraft, called the Overture, will reportedly be able to fly between San Francisco and Tokyo in just six hours and between Newark, N.J. and London in just three-and-a-half hours.
Boom is slated to roll out the Overture jets in 2025, and the companies are hoping to begin flying passengers on the aircraft as soon as 2029.
Boom is slated to roll out the Overture jets in 2025, and the companies are hoping to begin flying passengers on the aircraft as soon as 2029, though the planes will need to be cleared by regulators first.
In the long-term, a decade or more from the first flight, Boom has a goal of eventually being able to fly between any two locations in the world in four hours with tickets costing only $100.
That is a far cry from the thousands of dollars for a ticket on Concorde, which was famously environmentally unfriendly. The Boom, for its part, is also being designed to use 100% sustainable aviation fuel and be carbon neutral.
Achieving that goal of cheap and fast travel won’t come easy. It is likely to take multiple generations of the new aircraft before the company meets that target, said Jordan Staab, president of SmarterTravel.
“If Boom can show that it’s possible to make flying cheaper and faster, it’s likely to force competing airlines to lower their prices on long-haul routes in response,” Staab said.
The Concorde failed — in part — because of how much the tickets cost
The Concorde jet, which was manufactured by British and French companies, could hit Mach 2.04, which was over twice the speed of sound. The airline was first flown in 1969, at a time when many companies around the world were aiming to launch supersonic planes including Boeing
The Concorde eventually entered passenger service in 1976 and operated until 2003.
A number of factors contributed to the Concorde’s ultimate demise. There were many complaints about how loud the plane was, especially because of the sonic boom it created when it surpassed the speed of sound.
The plane also suffered from waning popularity in its later years. In 2000, a Concorde jet owned by Air France
crashed after departing Charles de Gaulle Airport, killing everyone on board. A little over a year later, the terrorist attacks of September 11 caused an extended downturn in air travel, which hit many airlines hard.
But the Concorde wasn’t all that profitable for the airlines that flew it. Despite ticket prices that could reach as high as $8,000 for a roundtrip flight between London and New York in 1997, or more than $13,000, it wasn’t seen as a lucrative venture.
“In order to gain those sort of supersonic speeds, they had to have a very small plane, had to have a limited number of people on board, and had to use an extraordinary amount of jet fuel,” said Scott Keyes, founder of travel website Scott’s Cheap Flights. “The amount that they were able to recruit from ticket sales just didn’t quite match up with how much it cost them to fly a Concorde on any given flight.”
United and Boom are already aiming to keep the costs much lower to make the Overture a more financially sound venture, according to spokespeople from both companies.
“We are targeting Overture’s operating costs to be 75% less than operating costs for the Concorde,” a spokeswoman for United told MarketWatch. “This is one of the reasons we are starting our work with Boom now, so that we can help them make Overture commercially viable.”
The United spokeswoman said it is “too early to know how tickets will be priced that far in the future.”
Tickets on Overture flights will come at an ‘extraordinary cost’
However, a spokeswoman for Boom noted that “data show that travelers are willing to spend more to experience fast, sustainable flight,” though she added that the fares charged are up to the airlines.
Travel experts warned that they won’t be cheap — at all. Keyes predicted that if a business-class seat on a standard flight from the U.S. to Japan cost around $4,000, then a flight on the new supersonic aircraft would likely cost anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000.
‘The people who can afford to pay the extraordinary cost that it will take the fly on these are primarily going to be either business travelers or the kind of well-on folks who tend to live in very expensive cities.’
— Scott Keyes, founder of travel website Scott’s Cheap Flights
United will likely opt to have the planes travel between major business hubs — such as Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York or London — rather than tourist destinations like Miami or Hawaii, Keyes said. This, in part, reflects the audience that would be most eager for a supersonic travel experience even at top-dollar prices.
“It’s going to be very business focused because the people who can afford to pay the extraordinary cost that it will take the fly on these are primarily going to be either business travelers or the kind of well-on folks who tend to live in very expensive cities,” Keyes said.
Flying first class on normal flights could get cheaper
In the meantime, Overture CEO Blake Scholl told CNN Travel that he aims for tickets to cost in the first-class flight price range.
As for that $100 ticket? “Now it’s going to take us time to get there,” he said, adding, “I find it helpful to think much further out and say, ‘Where do we want to be in a decade or two? And what’s possible at that time scale?’ Then you work backwards and say, ‘How do we get there?’”
Given the premium experience that United will likely offer with the Overture jets, the new service will be competitive with more traditional first- and business-class offerings on other airlines. And that could lead to cheaper fares for those premium seats.
“We don’t see it impacting economy class airfares that most people would pay for trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific travel,” said Adit Damodaran, an economist with travel company Hopper.
Damodaran compared the Overture’s impact on the airline sector to the effect Tesla Model S has had on the auto industry. The Model S offers “a premium luxury experience with higher initial prices that won’t necessarily impact the prices of other more basic cars at first, but could compete against other luxury or sports cars and motivate an industry shift towards more eco-friendly or faster, safer vehicles,” he said.
But even if first-class airfares drop for certain routes in response to Overture, that effect may not be long-lasting. Airlines could reduce the number of seats in first-class or slash the number flights offered on certain routes in order to maintain higher prices for those offerings, Keyes said.