'Floating on air': Virgin Hyperloop signs deal with key jet parts maker

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Virgin Hyperloop has signed a partnership with key aerospace manufacturer Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc, the companies told Reuters, a key step in making billionaire Richard Branson’s futuristic vision of super high-speed travel a reality.

Los Angeles-based Hyperloop aims to whisk floating pods packed with passengers and cargo through vacuum tubes at 600 miles (966 kmph) an hour or faster.

In a hyperloop system, substantially free of air resistance, a trip between New York and Washington would take just 30 minutes - twice as fast as a commercial jet flight and four times faster than a high-speed train.

An announcement on the deal, signed earlier this month, is expected as soon as Thursday.

The design partnership is emblematic of Spirit’s push to diversify away from Boeing Co, from which it draws more than 50% of its annual revenue by supplying the 737 MAX fuselage and other parts. That strategy has taken on greater urgency in recent months as Boeing cuts demand for parts as the year-old 737 MAX ban and COVID-19 pandemic slashes jet demand.

Virgin Hyperloop, which has raised more than $400 million, largely from United Arab Emirates shipping company DP World and Branson, is among a number of firms racing to launch new high-speed travel systems.

Canada’s Transpod and Spain’s Zeleros also aim to upend traditional passenger and freight networks with similar technology they say will slash travel times, congestion and environmental harm linked with petroleum-fueled machines.

Elon Musk’s Boring Company envisions commuters zipping along underground tracks in electric cars.

“It allows us to re-imagine urban areas and connectivity between urban areas,” Hyperloop Chief Executive Jay Walder told Reuters. “You’ll be able to move up to 50,000 people per hour, per direction. With zero source emissions.”

With Spirit, Hyperloop gains aerospace-grade engineering resources as it fleshes out the pod’s magnetic levitation system, which Walder says will make passengers feel like they are “floating on a bed of air”.

Spirit hopes the partnership will evolve into high-rate manufacturing work for fuselage-shaped pods and other equipment, similar to its relationship with Boeing.

“Would the hyperloop network reach 737 volumes, we are capable and ready to support,” Keith Hamilton, Spirit’s Executive Director of Programs and Business Development, said by email.

Virgin Hyperloop’s goal is to launch commercial routes by 2029, Walder said. It originally planned to begin construction this year on the world’s first Hyperloop in India, linking Mumbai to Pune, but the pandemic has delayed procurement. It has a test track in near Las Vegas, Nevada.

It will also choose by fall 2020 between more than a dozen U.S. states that have applied to host an elaborate certification center and test track, Walder said. Construction is slated to begin in 2021, with completion and regulatory approval by 2025, he added.

Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Aurora Ellis