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Transatlantic Flights Airplane Nondescript Flying Off Toward Sunset

3-Hour Supersonic Transatlantic Flights Coming

Soon, you’ll be able to fly from New York to London in about three hours—again. An ambitious group of enthusiasts, engineers, and financiers announced a plan to build a new supersonic transport (SST) aptly named “Boom.” The trade press reports that a half-scale demonstrator and test vehicle, called the XB-1, will fly sometime next year. Presumably, a production version will fly within a few more years, and a lot sooner than the typical timetable for big-plane development at Airbus and Boeing would dictate.

The full-scale SST is designed to hold 45 to 55 passengers and fly at Mach 2.2—a tad faster than the Concorde. Even more ambitious is the proposed range of 4,500 nautical miles, or more than 5,000 statute miles, which is a lot farther than the Concorde could fly. That range would enable nonstop supersonic flights from Seattle to Tokyo and Seoul and maybe even squeeze out San Francisco-Tokyo. Almost all of Western Europe would also be open from Boston or New York.

Transatlantic Flights and the Sonic Boom

Developers are not trying to eliminate the sonic boom, as are the developers of a few other supersonic proposals. Instead, the Boom will be designed to operate economically when it has to slow down to just under Mach 1 when crossing inhabited land areas. So the plane will fly on routes that are mostly overwater. But those routes represent markets that could use a lot of planes.

Although the Boom liner may sound like vaporware, the folks behind it have some cred: Virgin Galactic and its Scaled Composites partners have developed some pretty amazing hardware. Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson has officially optioned 10 planes.

The Price of the Transatlantic Flights: More Boom, More Bucks

The PR for the project promises “affordable supersonic travel,” but “affordable” is an elastic concept. Concorde fares were pegged at or above prevailing first-class fares, amounting to a round-trip New York-London fare around $12,000 in the late 1970s. That was affordable enough to a small number of travelers that British Airways filled a lot of flights. But it wasn’t even on the radar screen for most travelers.

Developers expect the Boom to have much better economics than the Concorde. It will not need fuel-gulping afterburners to get off the ground and reach cruising altitude, and its airframe incorporates a lot of new post-Concorde aerodynamic technology. Still, today’s first-class fares are about the same as they were for the Concorde, and full-fare business class nonstop round-trip to London is more than $6,000. Presumably, “affordable” Boom fares will be affordable in the context of prevailing premium-cabin fares.

Supersonic travel is highly alluring. I’ve flown Concorde from New York to Paris, and leaving New York at around noon, experiencing a lavish lunch, and arriving in Paris in time for a late supper or full night of sleep in a real bed was exhilarating. Fortunately, I was able to do it on a charter deal for $500 one-way, not $5,000.

Fast Transatlantic Flights: The Final Take

My take is that the folks at Boom will get their plane built, and that a few airlines will fly them on long overwater routes at fares somewhere between then-current business- and first-class rates. Those lines will find enough celebrities, CEOs, and hedge fund managers to fill a modest number of seats. But, as with Concorde, most of us will get no closer than a quick peek while at a big hub airport.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.


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