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United Airlines Aims To Bring Back Supersonic Service


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER, BYLINE: Finally, the tower gave the go-ahead for the approach, and the first commercial supersonic airplane began its landing at Dulles.



That's NPR on the ground at Dulles International Airport in 1976 to witness the Concorde's first commercial landing in the U.S. Air France and British Airways retired the Concorde fleet in 2003. Now an American carrier wants to restart supersonic service.

Jon Ostrower is editor-in-chief of The Air Current and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

JON OSTROWER: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: United wants to begin supersonic service again with a plane from a manufacturer called Boom. Tell us about the deal.

OSTROWER: What they - is 15 of these airplanes in their fleets starting in 2029, and they have an option to pick up another 35. But there is a long way to go before this becomes a reality.

SIMON: So this will be like the Concorde was, an aircraft with a limited number of seats, right?

OSTROWER: Yeah. No, this is going to have about 88 seats, though United says they'd like more. And if you want to go fast, you need a - you know, that iconic delta wing, which Concorde was known for. And so that's going to, you know, inform heavily the design that Boom is looking at.

SIMON: I have a memory that one of the many reasons the Concorde stopped flying was because there just wasn't enough business. Not enough people found it necessary to get from New York to London in three hours rather than six.

OSTROWER: Well, that's - that was part of it. But a lot of the reason Concorde fell out of favor, No. 1, was because there were - the product, also, on subsonic aircraft was getting so much better. I mean, you could get a great night's sleep on a 777 or an A330 from Airbus. But, look; Concorde made a ton of money. Let's - I think it's really important. I mean, is it on the charter business? And, look; they knew that there was a premium that people would pay for speed.

SIMON: Who does United think they're going to be able to book?

OSTROWER: So this airplane doesn't work if you're flying from LA to New York to London. If you're connecting, you lose...

SIMON: Yeah.

OSTROWER: ...All the benefit. So you - so it really does have to be an airplane that flies between megacities, so New York to London. But at the end of the day, United, in sharing their plans with me last week, really said, this is not about the cost of the operation of the aircraft. This is about the revenue you can get from it. And fundamentally, they want to charge a premium price. This is going to be more expensive than their subsonic airplanes.

SIMON: We should note, of course, that the Concorde went out of business not long after the crash of Air France Flight 4590 at Charles de Gaulle Airport. I once actually got to fly on the Concorde. And I thought it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life (laughter). It was a short transatlantic flight - like, three hours - and I didn't want to get off. You could see the curvature of the Earth. It was intoxicating. It was great.

OSTROWER: And that is what, ultimately, this week was about because I think people want that. People want to go fast. People want to get to the edge of the atmosphere and see the blackness of sky - of the sky. And I think there's rightfully a lot of curiosity and questioning and, I think, rightful skepticism about bringing in a new supersonic entrant into this business because what it takes to kind of build a startup, but in aerospace, to become a true institution, like a Boeing or an Airbus, takes billions upon billions upon billions of dollars. And you have to abide by the laws of physics. And, you know, if you're going to go fast, you're going to burn more fuel, whether it's sustainable or traditional fuel. So all of this has to match up with reality. And I think right now, we are still very much in the marketing and enthusiasm phase for where Boom is and where they're going. And by the way, they still need an engine to be able to do this. So we've got a long way to go.

SIMON: They haven't developed an engine?

OSTROWER: No, they've not. No.

SIMON: That's a big part of an airplane, isn't it?

OSTROWER: (Laughter).

SIMON: I'm no expert, but...

OSTROWER: They've been working with Rolls-Royce over the last year-plus publicly. And they're closing in on what they see as an engine design based on part of the core of the most efficient subsonic airplanes, so the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350. But what they're going to do is they're going to shrink the front fan. Without getting too technical here, effectively, what they need to do is they need to make air go very fast and through this engine and make the - you know, generate the required amount of thrust to go 1.7 times the speed of sound. So they need the money to develop an engine. They also need the resources and the attention to do it. So it's a question of how big is the market for supersonic and whether or not they actually go and commit to developing an engine for Boom.

SIMON: You hope you can be on one of the first flights?

OSTROWER: I would love to, of course.

SIMON: Yeah.

OSTROWER: Absolutely.

SIMON: Jon Ostrower is editor-in-chief of The Air Current. Thanks so much for being with us.

OSTROWER: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.