Boom — Supersonic passenger travel ready for a comeback?

Morning appointments in London, lunch in New York, and then back home in Frankfurt by evening. This dream of well-heeled globetrotters and meeting-afflicted managers came to a shocking end with the Concorde disaster in 2000. Since then, supersonic aircraft have been the subject of concept studies that are nowhere near market ready. In general, they’re too complex to develop, too expensive to operate, and too polluting of the environment. Founded in Colorado, USA in 2014, startup Boom Technology wants to transform its slick animations into real sheet metal. The team is working on a supersonic business plane that will be able to fly between London and New York in just under 3 1/2 hours. And since fuel consumption would be at least 30% less than that of the Concorde, the return leg could be offered for under $5,000 (vs. $12,000). Boom is currently working on a prototype in a 900 m² hangar south of Denver, which is expected to carry 55 passengers from around 2023.

The leading driver of business travel in today’s ultra-globalized world is efficiency. Not only should the trip last no longer than absolutely necessary, but the time in the air should be as comfortable as possible for passengers wanting to work. Speed ​​is thus a pivotal factor for “Boom”: While conventional airlines fly at Mach 0.85 and the legendary Concorde cracked Mach 2, the startup has the goal to achieve Mach 2.2 (2700 km/h). Technologically, the project is being propelled by ultra-light, extremely robust composites and increasingly efficient engines. Meanwhile, the major manufacturers are not investing significantly in supersonic flight, preferring to keep it on their radars only as a potential future scenario. Airbus is carrying out studies (codenamed: Zehst) for the 2050s. Boeing, which is cooperating with the US space agency NASA, assumes that supersonic passenger jets won’t take off for at least another 15 to 20 years. The Japanese space agency JAXA is more optimistic, however, and is already conducting a Mach-5 study.

Boom seeks to position itself as a manufacturer of airliners. It is even weighing the idea of becoming technology supplier that passes on patents and know-how to established players.

Founder and hobby pilot Blake Scholl previously headed marketing automation at Amazon and sold a startup to the multinational coupon discounter Groupon. Scholl is assisted by various aviation experts, including former employees of Gulfstream, NASA, and engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. An advisory board continues to be chaired by leading authorities from Virgin and Lockheed Martin.

Since November 2016, Boom has raised at least $47M in venture capital. Originally born out of the completely new Y-Combinator startup incubator, the company in the meantime has established visibility in the airline world: The risk-savvy Virgin Group (including Virgin Hyperloop and Virgin Galactic) secured ten purchase options worth $2B in the concept phase and has supported the supersonic aircraft in its development ever since. Japan Airlines (JAL) also placed orders and invested ten million US dollars for a stake in the company. One year ago, Boom announced that it already had a total of 76 orders from five airlines on its books. Most recently, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker conveyed serious interest. The startup’s latest coup: Ctrip, China’s Expedia, invested an undisclosed amount, which opens for Boom the gateway to a globally-relevant, difficult-to-access market that is also open to regulatory experimentation. In addition to immense sales reach and government contacts, Ctrip now brings substantial airline expertise. In 2016, the group invested more than $460M in the carrier China Eastern.

Sector giants are especially skeptical about a new kid on the block that aims to compete with billion-dollar manufacturers of a thoroughly regulated industry — especially one with limited financing. The promises of faster passenger aviation are legion. Yet the innovation cycles of Airbus, Boeing and Co. are too long. The attitude here thus resembles the general level of awareness in the area of vertical take-off and landing drones (VTOLs). While the technological feasibility is increasingly acknowledged, there is less comprehension about the economic feasibility, customer acceptance, and regulatory hurdles.

At the very least, the sheer symbolism of the project is important. Boom boldly demonstrates that sophisticated visions from non-conventional players in tech have existed for some time. And not only in the digital context. It is therefore only natural that the tech world is likewise laying claim to aviation, which is steeped in proprietary engineering knowledge — just as it has in the areas of longevity (Calico Labs), mobility in vacuum tubes (Hyperloop), and travel to Mars (SpaceX). And since Boom is now backed by extensive industrial knowledge and an increasing amount of capital, the somewhat derogatory label of “garage dreamer” no longer applies.

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Gleb Tritus

Managing Director Lufthansa Innovation Hub, serial entrepreneur and startup investor in Berlin/Germany.