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Gambling On Supersonic Air Travel Again

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's been almost two decades since the last supersonic jets whisked passengers over the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound. British Airways and Air France retired their Concorde fleets back in 2003. But by the end of this decade, supersonic travel might be back and more affordable and environmentally friendly. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Think about boarding a flight in New York in the morning and being in London in time for lunch, afternoon meetings and even dinner and then getting back home in time to tuck your kids into bed at night. That's Blake Scholl's dream.

BLAKE SCHOLL: So imagine New York to London in 3 1/2 hours. Imagine San Francisco to Tokyo in under six. Imagine Sydney being as accessible as Honolulu is today.

SCHAPER: Scholl is founder and CEO of Boom Supersonic, which is developing jets to fly at 1.7 times the speed of sound, about 1,300 miles an hour - twice as fast as today's commercial jets. And there's more.

SCHOLL: This is the first airliner designed from the ground up to run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel, which means the entire supersonic fleet is going to be completely carbon neutral.

SCHAPER: Scholl says technological advancements make this all possible.

SCHOLL: Remember; Concorde was designed with slide rules and wind tunnels and drafting paper. And, you know, today we've got carbon fiber composites and computer-aided design and optimization. We've got a whole new generation of engines that are quieter and significantly more fuel-efficient.

SCHAPER: But this jet, called the Overture, is far from being cleared for takeoff, though United Airlines is putting down deposits on 15 of the planes with an option to buy 35 more. The plan, according to United VP of Corporate Development Mike Leskinen, is to put the first Overture into service eight years from now in 2029.

MIKE LESKINEN: It's really exciting. And we hope to cut travel time for our customers in half on a number of Atlantic routes initially and I think longer term on some of the Pacific routes.

SCHAPER: And Leskinen says operating costs would be 75% lower than the outrageously expensive and gas-guzzling Concorde, so fares won't carry that jet's $10,000 price tag.

LESKINEN: We expect to be able to bring it into profitable service at about the same price as business fares today.

HENRY HARTEVELDT: Yeah, look; this is a bold move from United.

SCHAPER: Henry Harteveldt is a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research, and he asks the multibillion-dollar question. Is there a market for supersonic air travel?

HARTEVELDT: The airplane nerd in me says, yes, I can't wait to get on one of these things. But the analyst in me says, I'm not so sure.

SCHAPER: Harteveldt says because this plane will be expensive to build, initial air fares will likely be much higher than United and Boom are suggesting. And he questions whether Boom can really deliver the plane that they're promising, as there isn't a prototype yet and not even a jet engine.

HARTEVELDT: Right now Boom is the equivalent of a paper airplane. It's a dream. It's something that the people at Boom are working hard to turn into reality. But there are a lot of steps that they have to achieve before this plane takes to the air.

SCHAPER: Oh, and about that name, Boom - "Saturday Night Live's" Weekend Update recently had some fun with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

COLIN JOST: So get ready to fly fast and cheap on the only airline named after the sound of an explosion.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHAPER: Boom's CEO Scholl chuckles at that, too, knowing that if his company can deliver on affordable, sustainable supersonic flight, Boom and United will have the last laugh.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES'S "FLYING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.