Super-speed if sustainability standards succeed: United Airlines plans supersonic flights by 2029
June 20, 2021
3 min read
What's going on here?
Following the purchase of 15 Overture aircrafts, US airline United has revealed its plans to introduce supersonic passenger flights by 2029.
What does this mean?
United Airlines has partnered with Boom Supersonic in the hopes of bringing supersonic commercial flights back to the aviation industry. ‘Supersonic’ means the planes will be travelling faster than the speed of sound, so while passenger jets typically reach around 560mph, these planes are expected to travel at double this speed, at roughly 1,122mph. This could see us able to travel across to New York from London in just 3.5 hours – about the same time it currently takes to get from London to Newcastle by train!
The news comes 18 years after Concorde supersonic jets were retired in 2003, after 27 years of flying. Concorde aircrafts reached up to 1,350mph and were viewed as a luxurious means of travel. However, high levels of fuel consumption and maintenance costs, along with a high-profile plane crash back in 2000, resulted in various financial issues and ultimately its demise. United hopes to overcome the problems faced by Concorde, with modern research and technological advancements on their side, plus clear safety and sustainability requirements to fulfil.
What's the big picture effect?
Although these plans have the potential to showcase the aviation industry’s innovative success, the issue of sustainability may prove to be a problem. As United plans to pave the way for net-zero carbon flights, by running the planes solely on sustainable fuel, there will be a higher demand for renewable energy sources to produce this sustainable biofuel, which is neither cheap nor easy to get in large quantities. The aviation industry is already responsible for a considerable chunk of travel and carbon emissions, and powering these supersonic planes threatens to add to this.
Furthermore, mitigating the effects of noise pollution in the form of a sonic boom presents a challenge. These are shock waves produced as a result of objects travelling faster than the speed of sound. This means planes may be limited to lower speeds until they are far enough away from land, so the boom can’t be heard.
According to the airline’s head of corporate development, Michael Leskinen, these planes may be a lucrative business tool, with the opportunity to fly halfway across the world for a meeting and be back home in time for dinner. However, the pandemic has also highlighted to companies that virtual conferences and meetings work just as well, and for a much lower cost, possibly suggesting lower corporate demand for supersonic flights. On the other hand, over a year of virtual meetings, travel restrictions, and ‘zoom fatigue’ may make the opportunity to halve international travel time even more attractive. Still, with many companies prioritising reducing corporate spending, and ticket prices looking to be in the thousands, virtual meetings may continue to be the preferred method.
The aviation industry has taken a huge hit during the pandemic, so the success of supersonic travel may greatly help the industry regain its wings after a tough year. As new aircrafts have often failed in the past, and the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as other countries’ regulators, would have to give their approval, it likely won’t be a straightforward venture. However, with United’s current plans, as well as hopes for biofuel-only Boeing planes by 2030 (see a LittleLaw article on this by clicking here), the future of air travel may be headed in a significantly more sustainable, efficient, and luxurious direction over the coming 10 years.
Report written by Lotanna Okaro
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