Why No One Will Build An Engine For Boom’s Supersonic Plane

Last year United Airlines placed an order for Boom Aerospace’s promised Supersonic jets. This summer American Airlines followed suit. Japan Airlines is an investor in the company. And yet most people in aviation think that the plane will never be built.

  • Is it just the skepticism of the status quo? Certainly aviation can be a stodgy industry, and it’s so heavily regulated we don’t see a lot of innovation. (If you start pointing to changes that have happened, you have to recognize how small they are over long periods of time.)

  • Or is there something about the company, or the plan, that’s simply not viable?

The most common refrain you hear is that they do not have an engine for the plane and that’s obviously a big deal. But why is that?

  • Boom promises to announce a manufacturer of an engine for its plane later this year, which is another way of saying they still do not know who is going to manufacture an engine for their plane.

  • GE, Honeywell, Safran, and Rolls Royce have all opted out.

  • Pratt & Whitney and CFM haven’t publicly taken themselves off the table. Engine Alliance makes A380 engines. International Aero Engines makes A320 engines. GE Honda makes regional jet engines. It’s hard to imagine Boom engaging a Russian or Chinese manufacturer at this point. Could they be left with Ukraine’s Ivchenko-Progress?

Credit: Boom Aerospace

If they can’t get a top tier manufacturer like Pratt & Whitney, they’re going to have a credibility problem (well, they already have one). And what they’re trying to accomplish takes real engineering know-how.

Here’s the issue. An engine manufacturer has to believe that the engine is going to sell well, in order to recoup develop costs and turn a profit. In fact it has to sell better than other things they might deploy development resources against.

It should be possible to accomplish what Boom wants to do. Supersonic jets aren’t a new idea, Concorde accomplished it 50 years ago. They’re just trying to engineer something that’s more fuel efficient – both for operating economics (so airlines can make money) and for environment concerns (airlines have made environmental commitments). They’re also trying to make something quieter. Combining with potential regulatory changes they want to be able to do some overland flying in order to serve more markets, and therefore sell more planes.

The problem is that engine manufacturers aren’t just betting on Boom Aerospace technology, they’re betting on a willingness of airlines to actually buy the planes. That doesn’t just mean place orders for the planes, either!

  • No U.S. airline ever purchased a Concorde, though orders were placed by Pan Am, Continental, TWA, American Airlines, Eastern, United and Braniff.

  • There were also orders from Qantas, Air India, Sabena, Air Canada, Lufthansa, and even Middle East Airlines and others which never came to fruition.

  • Only British Airways and Air France took actual deliveries of new aircraft.

  • The only other committed order came from Iran Air, and that was cancelled after the Iranian revolution.

Oddly Braniff did briefly own Concordes for a few hours at a time. They operated service between Dallas and Washington Dulles in conjunction with Air France and British Airways, but to do so they were required to take ownership of the plane for the flight segment in order to operate under their own certificate of airworthiness.

As well as changing flight crews the US approved documentation and procedures had to be present on the flight deck, which meant that the UK/French documentation had to be stored in the forward toilet.

There also had to be a change in the aircraft registration, while being flow on the Dallas – Washington – Dallas routes the “G” or “F” was covered up with white tape. On landing at Washington the ground staff would pull work ladders up to the tail and peel of the F- or G- registration numbers and changed them to an “N” with two letters and the numbers “94″ after that. This was repeated every time the Concordes landed in the US from Europe.

Credit: Boom Aerospace

As long as supersonic travel is more expensive than subsonic, the market will be limited. And limited markets make it tough to recoup development and acquisition costs. Airlines have a hard time making money operating only a couple of planes of a type. The plane needs to be capable of flying long distances, fuel efficiently, and carry large numbers of passengers in order to be economical on a large scale.

Otherwise the market has to be able to support fares significantly higher than for subsonic transport. The ultimate question is: how much is shaving 3.5 hours off of a transatlantic flight worth, and to how many people?

When American announced their order they said they made a non-refundable deposit but didn’t specify what that means. It could have been $1. They didn’t even produce a graphical rendering of the plane in American Airlines livery. And American didn’t spend the day promoting this on social. For some reason they made the move (claiming to have ordered more planes than United, even) but didn’t go all-out even with the P.R. Their pilots’ union even came out against the move, and they represent the people who theoretically would get to fly the thing!

It’s possible to build a supersonic plane, but inefficiencies and regulation killed the Concorde. Boom can presumably develop a plane, and a top engine manufacturer can produce an engine for it. But will it sell to airlines who see themselves able to operate enough of the planes, to enough places, with enough frequency – given a market that will pay a premium for the option – in order to buy enough planes and engines where the whole thing works out as a business?

That’s what Boom seems to be having a hard time convincing engine manufacturers to make a bet on, and while they’ve raised about $250 million in funding over the past 8 years they don’t have the resources to guarantee an engine manufacturer profitability.

Engines can cost billions of dollars to design and tens of millions of dollars apiece to purchase. It’s a huge bet for an engine manufacture, which Boom isn’t in a position to fund, and a need to sell large numbers of engines just to break even. If a manufacturer can’t sell several hundred engines they won’t recoup their development cost, after recouping production costs, let alone turn the project profitable.

It’s as much about skepticism of the market as skepticism of the plane, or put another way, to the extent that it’s about the plane it’s not whether the plane is possible, or an engineering marvel, but whether the plane will be good enough, to be so compelling, that airlines cannot turn down placing orders and taking actual delivery in large numbers.

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