American Airlines agrees to buy 20 supersonic planes

By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business

American Airlines is betting on a future in which supersonic jets could return to the skies, ferrying passengers on some routes at speeds about twice as fast as current commercial jets.

The exact size of this bet, however, remains uncertain. American, which said it had placed a deposit for up to 20 supersonic jets with the option to purchase up to 20 more, declined to share financial terms of the deal, which was announced on Tuesday.

It all depends, however, on whether the company that is to build the jets, Boom Supersonic, can deliver on its lofty promises. Experts have wondered if supersonic jets are likely to make a comeback.

Boom is developing a jet called Overture that the company says will be able to carry 65 to 80 passengers at nearly twice the speed of sound.

But the jet is still in the early stages of development. Boom recently unveiled a “refined” version of the plane, which it says has completed some wind tunnel testing. However, it has yet to perform a test flight and the first production vehicles are not expected to roll off the line until 2025, according to a press release.

The Overture is reminiscent of the Concorde, the super-fast – and hugely expensive – jet that ferried people across the Atlantic Ocean for up to $10,000 a seat. The Concorde, in particular, was taken out of service in 2003 because the economy just wasn’t working. The fuel-hungry jet was too noisy to fly over land because its high speeds would generate deafening sonic booms, relegating it to cross-ocean journeys like its popular London to New York route.

Experts said jets like the Concorde are unlikely to make a comeback, in part because those jets would need to find enough customers willing to shell out the premium price. But that hasn’t stopped Boom, American and United Airlines – which announced plans to buy up to 15 Boom jets last year – from putting cash and marketing muscle behind plans to relaunch supersonic air travel.

Boom says its jets could enter service by 2029, and while they can’t reach top speeds on land, they could still travel up to 20% faster than current commercial jets, the company claims.

“Flying from Miami to London in just under five hours and from Los Angeles to Honolulu in three hours are among the many possibilities,” says Boom.

But foreign regulators and the US Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial airlines, will first have to approve the jets. And we don’t know when or if that will happen.

After the Concorde’s economic failure, airlines and aircraft manufacturers generally focused on greater efficiency, not speed.

Boeing, for example, abandoned plans for a near-supersonic jet, the Sonic Cruiser, in the early 2000s and focused on developing a lightweight, fuel-efficient jumbo jet, the 787 Dreamliner. (The 787, of course, has its own problems.)

The US government has, however, shown interest in reviving supersonic jets. The FAA says on its website that it is currently working to establish new traffic rules for these aircraft, including allowable noise levels over land. And NASA has invested money in the development of a “silent” supersonic jet, called the X-59, in hopes of bringing this technology to the commercial sector. But even the first prototype hasn’t taken off yet, with the first test not expected until later this year.

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CNN’s Chris Isidore contributed