PARIS – Boom Aerospace unveiled the final design of its upcoming XB-1 demonstrator aircraft Tuesday morning at the Paris Air Show. The supersonic jet startup is building towards a first flight of the shrunken demonstrator plane in 2018, with a first full-scale flight in 2020, and passenger entry into service in 2023.
— AirwaysLive (@airwayslive) June 20, 2017
“It has been 48 years since Concorde made its debut here and we’re so excited to be talking about a supersonic renaissance, said Boom founder Blake Scholl. Our mission is to pick up where Concorde left off. We’re focusing on fuel economy, and putting the right number of seats on the plane. If you can fill seats on a widebody, you can fill them on a supersonic plane. We tested about 1,000 designs. Most of them were bad.”
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) June 20, 2017
According to Scholl, the preliminary design review is completed for the XB-1 Baby Boom. Updates include three intakes and an updated wing. The demonstrator will be outfitted with GE J85 turbojet engines, originally designed for a cruise missile.
Stratasys will provide 3D printing for the first prototype. Assembly will begin later this year. Final assembly and vehicle integration are taking place in Boom’s facility at Centennial Airport, near Denver, Colorado.
A shrunken Concorde
Supersonic air travel has been more or less a pipe dream since the Concorde was retired back in 2003, with plenty of studies and discussions but little in the way of concrete progress.
Boom is the first operator that appears actually to be shaking up that paradigm, with its XB-1 “Baby Boom.” The initial design announced last year started with an aircraft at 45 seats and has since been stretched to 55 seats (in Business Class) as compared to 100 on the Concorde.
— AirwaysLive (@airwayslive) June 20, 2017
This will consist of 55 seats (not full flat beds) in an all-business class configuration or 45 seats (15 business, 30 flat-bed first) in a two-class configuration.
According to Scholl, the carbon fiber fuselage of the plane allows it to fly 10 percent faster than Concorde because it doesn’t heat and stretch the way aluminum did on the Concorde. The Concorde fuel burn went up 78 percent with the afterburners on, for only 17 percent more thrust.
“They weren’t stupid,” opined Scholl, “they were just dealing with the best technology they had in the 1960s.”
Operating costs, if met, would validate the project
According to Boom CEO, Blake Scholl, operating costs for Boom’s supersonic jet will be just 25% of those of the Concorde. In its time, the Concorde was 400-500% more costly to operate on a seat-mile basis than the 747-400.
At the same time, the next generation of widebodies like the Boeing 787, Airbus A350, and the Boeing 777X are anywhere from 20-40% more efficient than the 747-400 on a seat mile basis.
But if Boom’s numbers are accurate, then this means that relative to the 787-9, A350-900, and 777X, Boom’s jet is about 2.2 times more expensive to operate on a per-seat basis.
So to get to operating breakeven on the Boom jet even assuming that Scholl’s numbers are 100% accurate, the Boom plane will have to generate just 2.2 times the average fare that the 777X generates at 400 seats.
Relative to the 787 Dreamliner, the fare premium per seat is just 190%. This is actually incredibly compelling math if Boom can deliver on its promises.
Put another way, if the average one-way fare on a 787-9 is $1,200 (remember that this figure includes premium economy and business class passengers), then the XB-1 will need to generate an average fare of just $2,280 per passenger one-way to generate comparable returns.
That amounts to $4,560 round trip in business class, which actually a mid-range price point for business class in most markets.
There are lot of markets in the world that can support that kind of fare level in Business Class, even with the ~5,000 nautical mile range limitation. In his presentation, Scholl stated that Boom believed that it had 500 credible markets for the XB-1 over the next 15-20 years and at those cost figures, we believe him.
At the very least on day one, New York/Chicago/Boston/Washington DC – London will immediately mint money as will San Francisco/Seattle/Los Angeles – Tokyo on a nonstop basis. The XB-1 won’t quite have the range to fly most Trans-Pacific missions beyond Japan or most Europe-Asia routings, but pretty much everything else will be in play.
The value proposition of shaving 3 hours off of the flight from New York to London or 6 hours off of San Francisco to Tokyo would be transformational. In today’s market, passengers trip over themselves to access the added convenience of British Airways’ Airbus A318 flights from London City to New York JFK.
The added convenience and business value of the Boom jet would be immense – so immense in fact that it could credibly bring back the viability of one stop trans-Pacific flight offerings.
— Paul Thompson (@FlyingPhotog) June 20, 2017
Execution will make or break Boom
The challenge for Boom will be making sure that it can deliver on those cost promises – as they will make or break the airplane. The operating costs per seat could probably miss by 30-40% and still provide economic viability (albeit with a smaller market), but if Boom can deliver on the promised seat mile costs, the sky is the limit.
In our view, timeline risk is less of a worry for Boom, as there aren’t any real competitors in sight and the payoff to getting the costs right is immense.
The one caveat to that is that Boom has to make it to entry into service (EIS), and to that effect, it needs sufficient funding, whether from customers or investors. At present Boom has raised $41 million, including $33 million in March in a Series A from 8VC, Caffeinated Capital, Palm Drive Ventures, RRE Ventures, and Y Combinator Continuity Fund.
According to Scholl, that is enough to fully build the XB-1 and get it through first flight in 2018.
Boom is embarking on one of the most technically complex aviation projects in the last twenty years – one that makes the 787 look like a middle school science fair project by comparison. Our view is that this will drive substantial risk of timeline slippage and the requirement for additional funding.
Scholl claims that the existing order book can fund Boom through to EIS, though we are skeptical of that claim. According to Scholl, 76 planes have not been reserved by five airlines including at least one additional European carrier along with global launch customer Virgin Atlantic.
These are all purchase options (they wouldn’t qualify as firm orders) but do come with a significant financial commitment towards the $200 million list price of the XB-1, which Scholl says Boom will not discount (once again we are skeptical).
Scholl however, downplays concerns of execution risk. “A healthy skepticism [of the project] is fair. The secret sauce is the mission. People are really excited to see another supersonic plane When you have an inspiring mission it’s magnetic. You attract the top talent. Supersonic is what gets you out of bed, and the people you need.”
Boom will need to face down NIMBY concerns
The Concorde was actually profitable for British Airways back in the day, but its problem was mainly being banned from overland flights due to the sound pollution of the so-called sonic boom when the Concorde crossed into or out of supersonic speeds.
Because the Concorde largely was banned from overland flying, it could only fly a limited set of missions like New York/Washington – London/Paris. For Boom’s jet to reach its potential and have a prayer of reaching Scholl’s figures of 1,000 sales by 2035, it will need relaxation of the overland ban on supersonic flying, particularly in the US.
Scholl is optimistic about the prospects, noting that Boom’s jet will be 30 times quieter than the Concorde. “We think there’s a good chance the overland sonic boom restriction will be reversed. I’m optimistic, but the timeline is uncertain… In terms of the name, we feel the sonic boom is overblown.”
Despite Scholl’s optimism, the United States regulatory system is unfortunately dominated by powerful local interest groups known as NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyard), who oppose economic and technological advancement that may be good for the nation as a whole but impose a personal cost on them. The fear of sonic booms may be technically unfounded, but it is still a powerful sentiment amongst the population.
The other thing Boom will have to overcome is the perception that supersonic jets are unsafe, driven in part by the fatal crash of Air France Flight 4590 in July 2000, which killed 113 people.
The Concorde was profitable for British Airways at least before that crash, but the resultant drop in demand caused a downward spiral that culminated in the Concorde’s retirement in 2003.
According to Scholl, Boom believes that any safety concerns can be alleviated. “We are taking the lessons learned from the Air France Concorde crash. The Concorde had only one crash in 27 years and it was a runway incident. [There is] no reason to believe in any danger related to supersonic travel.”
Vinay Bhaskara also contributed to this story