United's supersonic planes would be a 'massively polluting' disaster

4 min read
The true cost of bringing back faster-than-sound aviation.
The era of supersonic flights supposedly ended nearly two decades ago. The Concorde — a 100-passenger jet that could cruise at 1,300 miles an hour and reach London from New York in a mere three and a half hours — made its swan song flight on October 24, 2004. In 27 years in service, it struggled to turn a profit and faced rising safety concerns after a devastating crash in 2000. Since then, airline passengers have had to cruise along at decidedly subsonic speeds.

Now, United Airlines wants to put extra-fast travel back into the atmosphere. The fourth-largest U.S. airline announced last week that it had reached an agreement with the Colorado-based startup Boom Supersonic to purchase 15 faster-than-sound planes, slated to zip passengers across the world starting in 2029. The skinny, pencil-like jets — which Boom has musically dubbed "Overtures" — are expected to carry 65 to 88 passengers, fly at 1,300 miles per hour and transport some of the world's richest from New York to London for a quick lunch meeting.

And, barring an incredible technological breakthrough, they will also be terrible for the planet.

If flying is bad for the climate, flying fast is worse: New supersonic planes are likely to burn 5 to 7 times more fuel than traditional, slower-than-sound planes, according to modeling from the International Council on Clean Transportation, or ICCT. If they use the fuels of today, that would mean 5 to 7 times the carbon emissions to cover the same distance. On top of that, Boom's Overtures are slated to soar at 60,000 feet, almost twice as high as the standard cruising altitude of a subsonic plane, which means that its pollutants — including nitrogen oxides that deplete the ozone layer — will stay in the atmosphere longer. All that to shave a few hours off a long flight.

"It's the most…
Shannon Osaka
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