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OPINION: Travel disruptors are airline investment opportunity

Japan Airlines flight JL001, operated with a Boeing 777, needs roughly 12h to fly about 4,500nm (8,330km) from Tokyo to San Francisco. A Mach 2.2 airliner could cover the same distance in about 5.5h, or around the time it takes a subsonic airliner to fly across the USA.

That simple maths explains JAL's sustained interest in supersonic transport. It started in 1965 when the carrier optioned three Concordes from Aerospatiale/BAC, and never waned even as it cancelled that order amid an oil-price-driven economic crisis.

So it is not surprising that JAL is among the first five major airlines that have lined up to place speculative options for a total of 76 examples of Boom Supersonic's proposed M2.2 airliner.

More intriguing is JAL's decision to not only take options for Boom delivery slots but also invest $10 million in a company that is attempting to produce the first supersonic transport without government backing.

The weight of that investment exceeds the dollar value listed on the cheque. Boom's project is likely to require funding two orders of magnitude larger than the $51 million so far raised. It needs to convince an overworked aerospace supply chain that demand for such an aircraft is real.

While the token payment required to reserve delivery slots could be ignored as a marketing gimmick, a broader $10 million investment shows that JAL is serious.

But the Japanese carrier is not alone in seeking a return on high-tech investments. El Al, for example, has its Cockpit venture capital fund, which is seeking out start-ups with disruptive air travel technologies. And JetBlue has its Technology Ventures outfit, which has already placed bets on an airfare pricing solution called Flyr and – together with Boeing's HorizonX venture fund – a hybrid-electric airliner designer called Zunum Aero. Third parties, such as air-travel technology specialist Thayer Ventures, present another option.

It is an exciting time to be a technology start-up. An entire ecosystem has formed to nurture and accelerate potentially disruptive ideas which are already transforming how entire industries function. Of course, not all of these ideas will have the desired outcome. The proverbial jury is still out on the return of supersonic aircraft, given the economic, regulatory and, not least, technological obstacles to a successful project.

But there is no doubt that change is coming to parts of air travel, and it is vital that airlines participate in – and perhaps even profit from – the process.

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