It's been a good week for Richard Branson. Virgin Atlantic (which is 51% owned by his Virgin Group) just announced a second year of profit, reaping the rewards of lower fuel costs and focusing on the lucrative transatlantic market. It reported an 81% rise in pre-tax profits to £22.5m for 2015.
And Old Beardy also just revealed a development that has long been a personal goal of his. Virgin has signed a letter of intent with aerospace start-up Boom, which aims to make supersonic travel 'affordable'. Virgin apparently has options on the first 10 airframes. Boom’s proposed Mach 2.2 jet would zip from London to New York in around 3 hours and 20 minutes. Not bad.
The brains behind Boom is pilot and former Amazon exec, Blake Scholl, who is building a prototype of the jet in Colorado. Scholl thinks he will beat other competitors to market as his jets don’t require new tech requiring approval by regulators. He'll now have some help from another Branson business, Spaceship Company (the holding company of space-tourism start up Virgin Galactic), which will help out with design, production and testing support.
Scholl is confident passengers will be able to make that sub-four hour trip for $5,000 return – around the price of a current business class ticket. So perhaps not 'affordable' by most people's standards, but not absurdly expensive - you can see how there would be a market for it. Scholl also plans to target airlines ferrying passengers from San Francisco to Tokyo and from Los Angeles to Sydney.
It will certainly, resckons Scholl, be cheaper than the only supersonic airliner to make it into service so far, the late lamented Concorde, favourite of 80s celebs and TV stars including Joan Collins and David Frost. This technical tour de force was retired in 2003 after being deemed uneconomical. ‘You have to bring the ticket price down, and make the aeroplane the right size so you can fill the seats,’ he said. If his prototype is successful, Scholl thinks commercial flights could begin in a few years time. Hmm, let's see about that.
Other airlines will likely be watching the Virgin and Boom partnership with part interest, part concern. It's a long way from coming to market, but if it does then it could be spectacular.
It's even rumoured that another unnamed 'London based' airline has signed a letter of intent with Scholl too - it wants to buy $2bn worth of the jets. Could that be BA we wonder?
Of course this being Branson it may all just amount to a good PR opportunity, but it's worth keeping an eye on the sky for the return of super speedy planes in the not too distant future.