United Plans to Buy 15 Supersonic Planes

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United Airlines Holdings Inc.

UAL -2.70%

took a step toward returning supersonic flying to passenger travel, unveiling an agreement to buy faster-than-sound airliners from Boom Technology Inc., an upstart aerospace company that says its planned aircraft could carry travelers by the end of the decade.

United’s agreement to buy 15 of Boom’s Overture aircraft is conditional on whether the design—which hasn’t yet been built—can meet safety, operational and sustainability standards, the companies said Thursday.  Even so, the announcement suggests that one of America’s largest airlines sees the potential for a return of supersonic air travel, which disappeared with the retirement of the Concorde almost 20 years ago.

A spokeswoman for Boom declined to disclose the financial terms of the deal, but said that the agreement includes a non-refundable industry-standard upfront payment from United, as well as an option for United to buy 35 additional aircraft for a pre-negotiated price.

The Overture would be capable of flying at Mach 1.7, or 1.7 times the speed of sound, according to Boom and United. That could allow the airliner to make trips between London and United’s hub in Newark, N.J., in three-and-a-half hours, or between San Francisco and Tokyo in six hours. The airliner would also be capable of using sustainable aviation fuel, the companies said.

Boom has much ground to cover before United Airlines passengers board the Overture for supersonic flights. The Denver-based company, which also brands itself as Boom Supersonic and was founded in 2014 by its chief executive,

Blake Scholl,

hasn’t yet built an airplane that has flown. Its first prototype, the XB-1, could fly for the first time later this year or early next year, the spokeswoman said.

The Overture, which would carry up to 88 passengers, could fly for the first time in 2026, according to Boom and United, with passenger service potentially taking off in 2029.

Although a long way off, the plans signal that United believes it could rejuvenate the market for faster-than-sound air travel, which evaporated when

British Airways

and

Air France

removed the Concorde from service in 2003. Developed by the British Aircraft Corporation and France’s Aérospatiale in the 1960s, the Concorde at first seemed to promise wider adoption of supersonic flying.

High costs and concerns about the noise the Concorde produced wound up curtailing its use to pricey luxury trips between Europe and the East Coast. A fatal crash in 2000 and the travel slump after the 9/11 attacks led to the Concorde’s retirement, consigning supersonic airliners to aviation museums.

The Overture is also pitched toward a luxury travel experience. The plane would be longer than

Boeing’s

longest 737, but its capacity would be roughly half of a 737’s, according to specifications on Boom’s website. Boom’s renderings of the plane show a narrow-body configuration with rows of just one seat on either side of a central aisle.

A supersonic passenger jet in development by Boom Technology Inc. could slash transcontinental travel times in half. Photo: Boom Technology (Video from 11/15/16)

Write to Matt Grossman at matt.grossman@wsj.com

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