Breaking the time barrier
Boom Supersonic Founder & CEO, Blake Scholl, outlines the work his company is doing to deliver a supersonic airliner that can operate economically, making a transatlantic round trip in just one day feasible.
The virtual world becomes easier to navigate with each passing year. In our lifetimes, we have seen extraordinary improvements in search and online shopping, and video calls get clearer with each new device. But we don’t see the same trend in the physical world.
If you want to visit loved ones across a continent or an ocean, the trip won’t be any easier for you than it was for your grandparents.
We’ve become accustomed to long queues at ever-stricter airport security checkpoints, and today’s airplanes don’t fly any faster than the very first generation of jet airliners. In short, in our lifetimes, we have seen no meaningful increase in travel speeds.
It hasn’t always been this way. Two hundred years ago, people crossed oceans on weeks-long sailing voyages. They crossed land on human feet, horses, or covered wagons. Nineteenth-century entrepreneurs relentlessly pursued increases in travel speeds, first inventing, then perfecting and commercialising steamships and locomotives, all within a matter of decades.
A person born in the first part of the century could routinely travel several times faster by the end of their life. At the start of the century, a journey from New York to San Francisco would have taken months via covered wagon. By the end, it took 83 hours via transcontinental railroad.
Aviation’s early days
The early days of aviation were no different. The Wright brothers invented powered flight in 1903, and scheduled commercial airline service came to market by 1914. Aboard the DC-3, which entered service in 1936, passengers could reach San Francisco from New York in just 16 hours.
Only a few decades later, the first jet airliners put the entire world within one day’s travel. The Boeing 707 could offer a New York–London service in six hours – a fraction of the four-day passages offered on competing ocean liners. Unsurprisingly, most people preferred to fly. By 1965, 19 of every 20 travellers crossing the Atlantic did so by air, not by sea.
This was far from a case of jet airplanes stealing the ocean-liner market share one-to-one. Pan Am’s 707s gained more passengers than Cunard’s ocean liners lost. In 1960, 2 million people crossed the Atlantic by air, and 900,000 by sea. In 1970, 11 million travelled by air and just 200,000 by sea.
The jet age
In the first ten years of the jet age, air traffic grew at an unprecedented clip, as more and more people began to enjoy the freedom to travel.
Carriers connected far-flung destinations to their growing networks, and civil aviation enhanced global trade. Enjoying easy access to the world, companies began to do more business across oceans, exporting their ideas and innovations through face-to-face meetings which were previously unfeasible. Even entire countries benefited from increasing access to wider markets – cities like Dubai, geographically suited to be air transport and shipping hubs, grew with their airlines and airports.
The jet age let us engage with the whole world. The next logical step, the supersonic era, was stillborn in the 1970s. Only two supersonic airliners ever took flight, and both suffered the curse of poor economic performance. That age has come and gone, and we’ve lived our entire lives without the excitement of watching the next approaching revolution in travel.
Today, the median age in the UK is about 40 – only 1 in 5 Britons was born before the jet age. Not many of us are old enough to remember what the world was like before convenient, affordable jet air travel. We’re going on three generations with all sorts of progress in many areas – except speed.
The need for speed
Boom is changing that. We recognise the value of speed, and so do travellers. Today, the world is limited to small, marginal improvements in the convenience of travel. When an airline adds nonstop service between cities previously funnelled through a hub or two, more people choose to travel the route. What seemed an insurmountable combination of flights and layovers becomes a little less forbidding.
But to truly make the planet more accessible, our industry needs to pursue transformative innovation in speed.
There are two ingredients to any lasting revolution in transportation: convenience and cost. If we truly want to reframe travel, we have to tackle both at once. The first jet airliners were the last machines to fly faster in an economical way. Many thought the supersonic projects of the 1960s would catch on in a similar way – travellers are willing to pay more for speed, as history teaches us.
However, Concorde showed that this was true only up to a point. There weren’t enough people in the world able to pay the equivalent of $20,000 today for a transatlantic, round-trip ticket, when they could arrive a few hours later at a small fraction of the cost.
Boom is employing decades of advancement in aerospace technology to build a supersonic airliner that can operate economically at much lower fares. Carriers will be able to turn a profit without charging a premium over today’s subsonic business-class tickets.
We know that this market already exists – tens of thousands of people already pay these fares on long-haul routes today. And we believe that the supersonic renaissance should benefit more than the fortunate handful who can fly on private jets. On future airliners, we’ll be able to incorporate new, cost-reducing innovations that will make the faster future even more inclusive.
Supersonic travel is about more than just turning long-haul flights into short trips. If you want to fly from London to the States, you’re committed to two long flights and at least one night in a hotel. Meeting colleagues across the Pacific is worse – you lose three days to attend a single meeting. Unsurprisingly, most of us don’t go very often.
But at Mach 2.2, crossing the oceans becomes as easy as crossing the continent is today. A flight from London arrives at JFK in a little over three hours, instead of seven. On Boom’s airliner, you’ll cross the Atlantic for a few meetings and be back at home the same day. Sydney will be no farther from the United States than Hawaii is today. What cities, today relatively remote, will become the next global innovation hubs?
Boom’s airliner will shave one day off transatlantic itineraries – and two days off long, transpacific flights. We’re not pursuing speed solely because we’d like to fly faster. We want everyone to experience more of our planet.
Our world is wide, diverse and full of opportunities. When you can see more of it, where will you choose to go?
Blake will share more detail in his presentation at the inaugural FINN Sessions at Farnborough Airshow (July 16-22).