NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — United Airlines (UAL) CEO Scott Kirby has ambitious plans for bringing supersonic flights to consumers. But he admits that suborbital space travel will remain a “novelty for the rich.” UAL stock inched lower.
Kirby outlined his thoughts on five trends in the future of the commercial aviation industry at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference Monday.
Space Will Remain For The Rich
Billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos took off in crewed flights for Virgin Galactic (SPCE) and Blue Origin, respectively, fulfilling their commercial space ambitions.
Following the successful flight, Virgin Galactic reopened ticket sales for future flights at $450,000 per seat. Space tourism remains pricey. But Wall Street is bullish on companies eventually using the technology for hypersonic travel around the globe.
But Kirby said Monday that using suborbital space for point-to-point travel will likely remain a “novelty for the rich” unless there is a technological breakthrough “that’s not on the board yet.”
Supersonic Flight’s Future
However, United does see a future for superfast aircraft. The carrier bought 15 supersonic Overture planes from Boom Supersonic in June, with the option to buy 35 more at a later date. United expects to roll out the jets in 2025, fly them in 2026 and carry passengers by 2029.
The Overture jet can fly at Mach 1.7, about 1,300 miles per hour, which is twice as fast as current commercial planes. The carrier said potential routes include flying Newark to London in just three and a half hours. A flight from San Francisco to Tokyo would take just six hours.
But Kirby said Monday that a lot of work remains. The very narrow aircraft will need to be developed to hold enough passengers for commercial operations.
UAL stock’s relative strength line is ticking upward, but is still far from highs achieved in March. Airline stocks rose as pandemic travel restrictions loosened in March. But airline stocks are under pressure again as travelers worldwide remain cautious.
Virgin Galactic stock tumbled 7.6%.
Autonomous Passenger Aircraft Won’t Take Off
Kirby said that cybersecurity remains a major roadblock in developing autonomous aircraft. The technology needs to have a connection to the ground so that a human could take control if something went wrong. However, that same connection to the ground could give hackers access to the controls of the aircraft.
Electric Aircraft Investments
Kirby called climate change “the biggest issue that our generation needs to solve” on Monday. He sees a mix of sustainable aviation technology, carbon sequestration and sustainable aviation fuel in lowering air travel emissions.
In July, United and regional partner airline Mesa Air conditionally agreed to each purchase 100 ES-19 aircraft from electric-plane startup Heart Aerospace. The ES-19 can hold 19 passengers and fly up to 250 miles.
Earlier this year, the carrier said it would invest $20 million in another electric-plane startup, Archer.
While Kirby sees a future for electric aircraft for very short-haul flights, other options are needed to combat emissions from long-haul flights.
Commercial Aviation’s Climate Change Solutions
Kirby said that sustainable aviation fuel and carbon sequestration will make a bigger impact on reducing emissions than electric aircraft and other technological innovations. The aviation industry is estimated to account for 2% of all global carbon emissions.
United has invested in sustainable aviation fuel at Los Angeles International Airport. It has plans to be among airlines and companies purchasing 3.4 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel this year.
In December, United announced an investment in a carbon sequestration project with Occidental Petroleum‘s (OXY) subsidiary Oxy Low Carbon Ventures. The project is expected to offset 10% of United’s annual emissions.
Follow Gillian Rich on Twitter for aviation news and more.
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