22 Jul 2021 | Kristine T Liwag | Matthew Sharpe
Aerospace: Breaking Barriers: Boom Supersonic
Our new Breaking Barriers series explores disruptive companies in the A&D sector. We profile Boom Supersonic – an aircraft OEM developing a supersonic airliner for commercial flight. Supersonic air travel has significant implications for global airlines and traditional aircraft OEMs like BA.
Breaking Barriers Series
We are excited to announce the launch of Breaking Barriers – a new series exploring companies disrupting the A&D landscape. For our first iteration of Breaking Barriers, we examine Boom Supersonic and its vision for supersonic air travel.
What is Boom?
Boom Supersonic is an aircraft OEM developing a supersonic airliner for commercial flight. Boom’s Overture aircraft is intended to travel at twice the speed of today’s fastest airliners (e.g., New York to London in 3.5 hours). Overture is expected to begin to carry passengers by 2029.
Boom was founded in 2014 by CEO Blake Scholl. Scholl began his career as a software engineer at Amazon prior to starting a mobile technology company, Kima Labs, which was purchased in 2012 by Groupon. Boom originated in Scholl’s basement before he relocated the company to a hangar at Centennial Airport in Denver, Colorado. Today, Boom has ~160 employees, including ~30 licensed pilots on staff.
Since inception, Boom has raised $270mn in capital across several rounds. Notable investors include Bessemer Ventures, Prime Movers Lab (PML), Emerson Collective, Celesta Capital, and American Express. PML GP Zia Huque sits on the company’s Board. Other notable Board members include former Lockheed Martin Chief Technology Officer Ray Johnson, and former Square Inc. and Yahoo executive Jacqueline Reses.
- Series A – $33mn round. Investors included 8VC, Caffeinated Capital, Palm Drive Ventures, RRE Ventures and Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund
- Series B – $100mn round led by Emerson Collective
- Series C – $50mn round led by Celesta Capital (formerly WRVI)
Boom’s mission is to “make the world dramatically more accessible.” To do so, the company is developing Overture – a supersonic aircraft designed to carry 65 to 88 passengers at a cruising speed of Mach 1.7, compared to a typical Mach 0.8 of a commercial jetliner.
Flying twice as fast as today’s fastest airliners, Overture will cut travel times in half. Boom is targeting 500+ transoceanic routes.
To mature technologies for Overture, Boom developed a 1:3 scale prototype aircraft called XB-1, with development costing around $150mn. The 71-ft demonstrator aircraft is powered by 3 GE J85-15 engines. Boom introduced a fully-assembled XB-1 in October of 2020, the world’s first independently-developed supersonic aircraft. The company plans to break ground on a U.S. production facility for Overture in 2022. Production of the first airliner is slated for completion in 2025, after which the aircraft will undergo flight testing and certification. Boom expects development of Overture to run $6-8bn and plans to begin carrying passengers on Overture by 2029.
A number of customers have signaled interest in Boom’s Overture aircraft. In 2017, Japan Airlines (covered by Takuya Osaka) announced a $10mn investment in Boom and a purchase option for up to 20 aircraft. The U.S. Air Force is also working with Boom to procure custom Overture aircraft for government executive travel.
In June 2020, United Airlines (covered by Ravi Shanker) became the first U.S. airline to sign a commercial agreement with Boom Supersonic. Per the agreement, United will purchase 15 of Boom’s Overture airliners, with an option for an additional 35 aircraft. The United deal is valued at $3bn ($200mn per plane). Boom and United also intend to collaborate on increasing production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Overture is designed to run on 100% SAF. We note the cheapest sustainable aviation fuel is currently about twice the price of conventional fuel, so fuel production cost reduction will be crucial.
Boom is also partnered with a number of established A&D and technology companies. Rolls-Royce and Boom are working on a bespoke propulsion system for Overture that lowers engine noise, delivers new fuel efficiencies and is compatible with sustainable fuel. Collins Aerospace (RTX) is collaborating with Boom on advance nacelle technology. Boom is also leveraging a partnership with Amazon Web Services to manage design iterations, conduct stress testing, and simulate flights.
Supersonic commercial air travel is not a new idea. British Airways and Air France operated the Concorde from 1976 to 2003, which carried roughly 100 passengers at speeds in excess of Mach 2. A Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 also operated briefly in the late seventies. Success has been minimal, however, given the trifecta of excessive cost, noise and environmental impact.
Lessons from the Concorde
The Concorde was conceived when Britain and France signed the Anglo-French Concorde agreement in 1962 and tapped Aérospatiale (which became Airbus) and British Aircraft Corporation (which became BAE) to design and produce the aircraft. The plane conducted its inaugural test flight in 1969 and first flew passengers in 1976. Waning demand following a fatal crash in 2000, coupled with high operating and maintenance costs, led to the Concorde’s retirement in 2003.
New Solutions to Old Problems
According to Boom, currently available technology can help mitigate some of the challenges that faced the Concorde. For instance, due to the relatively small delta wing design of both the Concorde and Overture, both aircraft must fly at high angles of attack (nose pointed higher toward the sky) in order to maintain enough lift at low airspeeds. This makes it difficult for pilots to see the runway while landing. The Concorde tackled this by installing an iconic drooping nosecone that moved back up in the cruise phase of flight. Boom is using a camera under the nose for pilots to be able to see virtually, saving the weight and expense of a moveable nosecone.
By the time the Concorde flew passengers in 1976, development costs reached ~$2.8bn (~$13.6bn in today’s dollars). It took another 6 years before the Concorde began to turn a profit. All told, just 20 Concordes were built, including 6 prototypes. British Airways said its Concordes underwent 57 hours of maintenance for every hour in the air, far exceeding other airliners. Pilot training was also about twice the time of subsonic training. According to Boom, efficiency improvements since the Concorde have brought down operating costs sufficiently to make supersonic air travel economically viable.
Seats on the Concorde didn’t come cheap. A roundtrip ticket from New York to London cost passengers ~$20,000 in today dollars (~$12,000 in the mid-90s). Boom has designed its business model to profit at business-class fare levels and is targeting ~$5,000 for a roundtrip from New York to London. This compares to ~$2,000 for a business-class ticket and ~$5,000 for first-class fares on the same route today. The sale price of an Overture aircraft is $200mn, roughly equivalent to initial price of the Concorde when adjusted for today’s dollars.
Supersonic aircraft, by definition, travel faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1.0). At these speeds, a sonic ‘boom’ is created, which can be loud and powerful enough to shatter windows on the ground. As a result, supersonic flight over land is currently prohibited except in special situations. While Overture will at least initially be limited to flying at supersonic speeds over the ocean, Boom is exploring noise-reducing innovations in hopes of ultimately flying over land. According to the company, takeoff noise will also be similar to current long-haul aircraft.
The Concorde was also a notorious polluter. The aircraft burned ~ 4,670 gallons of fuel per flight compared to ~2,340 gallons for a 747-400, which carried four times as many passengers. Boom intends for “a flight on Overture to be better for the environment than a subsonic business-class ticket.” To achieve this, the company is embracing engine and airframe innovations, including the ability to accommodate the use of 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
The transatlantic routes between London/Paris and New York/Washington, D.C. were the most popular Concorde flights, running two or three trips per day. Other Concorde destinations, including Singapore, Miami, and Mexico City, required a two-leg trip as the jet was limited to ~4,500 nautical miles (nm) in range. Overture will have transatlantic range, but will require a tech stop to refuel on longer flights across the Pacific. According to Boom, passengers will not need to deplane for refueling and the downtime is factored into quoted travel times.
Implications for Aerospace
The implications for Overture and Boom’s vision of supersonic air travel are potentially vast. By adding supersonic aircraft to their fleets, airlines could tap into a new source of competitive advantage in a notoriously thin margin industry. Boom has identified 400 city pairs to target for routes with an estimated 58mn premium passengers per year. If seats on Overture are indeed priced similarly to traditional business-class tickets, airlines with Boom’s aircraft in their fleets could gain share within the business-fare segment. In fact, supersonic air travel may spur new demand as condensed travel times change the calculus for business-class travelers. Boom’s promise of a net-zero carbon footprint would also assist airlines with their emission reduction goals.
Taking share from OEMs
The value proposition of faster travel times, competitive pricing and environmental sustainability will be hard for airlines to ignore. Future orders for Boom aircraft could eat into demand for traditional widebody aircraft. According to United, the economics of Overture will rival a Boeing 787. To keep switching costs low, Boom is also designing Overture to ensure international airports will not need to modify existing infrastructure like terminals or runways to accommodate the new supersonic airliner.
What We’re Watching For
Boom has announced a number of technical milestones for Overture, including production in 2025, flight testing in 2026, and the start of commercial operations in 2029. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and foreign regulatory bodies must also clear Overture for operations. Developing, producing and qualifying a new aircraft is challenging even for traditional aircraft OEMs, not to mention building out a service network. We will continue to monitor Boom’s progress in turning its vision for supersonic air travel into a reality.