Century in review

 - November 26, 2007, 7:08 AM

The first four years of the 2000s have been a trial for aviation. While the decade got off to a heady start in 2000 with the high times of the late-1990s boom still going strong, by the spring of 2001 the industry’s fortunes were taking a southerly course. Few acknowledged that the good times were souring until the repercussions of September 11 made their mark, but the decline of civil aviation’s fortunes had begun a good few months before that darkest of days.

As we enter the last month of the first century of manned, powered flight, civil aviation is showing glimmerings of recovery after weathering skies perilous both economically and literally, times whose hard edge is still widely identified as September 11.

It was on that crackling clear day late in the summer of 2001 that airliners, the peaceful creations that bestow Orville and Wilbur’s gift on all mankind, were transformed into weapons of mass carnage. At 8:46 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, bright and still warm before the onset of autumn, an American Airlines 767, its cockpit seized by suicidal terrorists, erupted as it penetrated the north face of New York City’s World Trade Center North Tower
at almost 500 mph.

Seventeen minutes later, to the disbelief of a world already numbed by the sight of a familiar and surely permanent landmark belching smoke and flame into that otherwise glorious sky, the atrocity was repeated as a commandeered United Airlines 767 penetrated the south face of the South Tower at 590 mph, vanishing surreally as if passing through a veil, to emerge on the east and north faces as a fireball and showering the streets far below with turbofan disks, landing gear and other dense wreckage that the impact and explosion of nearly 10,000 gallons of jet fuel did not vaporize. In less than two hours, and watched by a disbelieving world, those same streets would absorb the collapse of the 1.5-million-ton structures.

A hijacked American 757 struck the Pentagon in Washington, and courageous passengers foiled the plan of hijackers to crash a United 757 into another Washington landmark, probably the White House or U.S. Capitol, by storming the commandeered cockpit in a struggle that ended in a crater in a Pennsylvania field. The terrorists had struck at the symbols of American military and financial might, using a prominent symbol of human achievement and freedom–the jetliner.

To those of us with a passion for airplanes and flying, the plot was a hideous perversion of the gift of piloting and of the machine that our people have spent 100 years perfecting. To the rest of the developed world, the machine whose role, in the words of its pre-eminent builder, is “bringing people together” had been turned against mankind. September 11 savaged the image of civil aviation. Who among us now can look up at a banked, low-flying jetliner without recalling the chillingly premeditated and murderous purposefulness of the arc that UA 175 sliced through the sky above New York Harbor as it hurtled inexorably toward self immolation in the South Tower? Can these wounds, trivial as they are compared with those of people who lost loved ones, ever heal? Probably no more than the emotional wounds of any witness to the slaughter of war.

A double shoulder-launched missile attack that failed to bring down an Israeli 757 taking off from Mombasa Airport, Kenya, in November last year put air travelers on notice that, regardless of the ever more stringent and expensive security precautions established at airports, jetliners remain vulnerable. And after spending billions of dollars on screeners and detection machines to keep guns off airliners over the years, the U.S. government now sees fit to allow some airline pilots to carry weapons to work in the cockpits of those same previously sterile jetliners.

As if the targeting of airliners by terrorists were not trial enough, aviation this decade has also had to confront the issue of the airplane as disease vector. The spread of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) dealt the airlines another crippling blow when they could least afford it. Passenger loads plummeted as medical researchers realized how easily the virus could spread among people in close quarters and, when carried by passengers aboard a long-range jetliner, among population centers continents apart.

Other forces have been at work on the airlines, too. Passengers have grown increasingly weary of a hub-and-spoke system that only ever really benefited the airlines in terms of convenience, creating a burgeoning market for regional jets to fly the very routes that, thin as they are, prompted the major carriers to create the hub-and-spoke system. What goes around comes back to bite sometimes.

The career of airline flying as the 2000s dawned was not what it was once cracked up to be: pilots confronted congestion at every turn, from their walk through the terminal to threading their way along clogged taxiways while waiting to take their turn on too few runways. Widely publicized pilot pay packages that took the annual earnings of some senior major-carrier widebody captains to the high $300,000s early this decade likely contributed to the bankruptcy filing of titan United and to a brush with insolvency by American. In terms of financial rewards and lifestyle, “airline pilot” still has a lot going for it, but the old-timers aren’t the only ones who concede it’s not the life it used to be. By cutting demand for airline travel, the aftermath of September 11 and the wobbly economy have temporarily eased the problems of congestion, but the experts now predict that overcrowding of airports and airspace will be worse than ever once aviation rebounds.

In Europe, such national stalwarts as Swissair and Sabena have slipped beneath the waves, and Air France and KLM just recently merged. British Airways flew its last Concorde SST service last month, following Air France’s retirement of the needle-nose thoroughbred five months earlier in May. Had it not been for the fiery crash of an Air France Concorde soon after takeoff from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport that claimed 113 lives on July 25, 2000, the Anglo-French supersonic transport would have joined the Handley Page HP.42 Hannibal (the stately four-engine biplane operated in the 1930s by British Airways predecessor Imperial Airways) as an airliner that never so much as scratched a passenger during its career. As it is, that one accident gave the small (14-airplane), low-utilization SST fleet one of the worst safety records of any current airliner when measured by the conventional yardsticks of number of hours flown/departures logged/passengers carried per fatal accident.

Is there any good news at the airlines? It depends on your perspective. Is the advent of the Airbus A380 something to look forward to? If you’re one of 555 passengers herded aboard this 617.5-ton (mtow) behemoth, how could it possibly be a flight to relish? (In high-density configuration, the initial version will be able to lift up to 820 passengers; future stretched versions will swallow more than 1,000 people.) If you’re an airline executive who can use the European superjumbo to fatten the corporate wallet, even at $275 million a copy the A380 will no doubt be a fine advance.

What about the 200/250-seat Boeing 7E7? Unless the oddly named Dreamliner can somehow succeed at making the whole airline travel experience pleasant again for the passengers (as opposed simply to boosting profit-making potential for the airlines
by virtue of its greater efficiency), won’t it be just another tightly packed airliner plying the skies between overcrowded airports? Welcome to commercial aviation in the second century of flight. Surely there’s a better way.

Well of course there is, for those who can afford it. Business aviation might have had a turbulent ride so far this decade, but in view of the alternative outlined above, its future can surely be nothing but healthy. If some ambitious startup companies can deliver on their promises, anyone with a million bucks or so later this decade will be able to buy his own twin-engine jet and bring a few friends along for the ride. That’s the vision, and it will depend on the ability of these startups to keep the money coming in to feed the program through certification and first deliveries; and on the comfort level of the insurance industry, which will be closely related to the effectiveness of training available to relatively inexperienced pilots in the special considerations of high-altitude, high-speed flight.

Perhaps, as at least one developer predicts, the sky will darken with fleets of these little jet-powered “air limos” scurrying back and forth at everyone’s beck and call. If they succeed, these very light jets will do for business aviation what the CitationJet did in the early 1990s, but on a larger scale. We’ll see.

Following a long tradition, the promoters of these very light jets find themselves developing their products during hard times, banking on the return of better times when the airplanes are ready for delivery–just as Bombardier and Gulfstream did when they were developing their ultra-long-range Global Express and GV in the economically gloomy early 1990s.

Will the tiltrotor finally bring to reality the long-held dream of speeding between vertical takeoffs and landings close to city centers, a dream that has remained elusive for the helicopter? Bell, Boeing and AgustaWestland would like to think so, but the execution of the mechanical concept has had some major setbacks during its protracted development program.

The centennial year of aviation also marked the end of an 11-year era at NBAA when president Jack Olcott stepped down. His replacement, Shelley Longmuir, comes to the top spot at business aviation’s lobbying organization from an airline background, which raised eyebrows despite the NBAA board’s avowed head-hunting mission of finding someone with Washington clout. Raised eyebrows in business aviation turned furrowed when Longmuir chose another airline executive to be her wingman. Time alone will tell if business aviation benefits from having two airline people running its association.

Challenges aplenty confront aviation in this centennial year, including the question of who will make aviation happen in the decades ahead. The passion that drove you and me to pursue a career in aviation has waned in the more recent arrivals to this planet’s population. Aviation apparently doesn’t have the allure it did when we were kids.

I didn’t leave the ground until I was 15, so I had a dozen years for that passion to build as I anticipated what it would be like to break free of the earth’s surface and look down on my world passing by below. As the RAF Chipmunk lifted off the grass those many years ago, it didn’t disappoint, and it still doesn’t.

The trouble is, most kids today have looked out the window of a Boeing on the way to grandma’s house, crammed in with a couple of hundred other people with places to go; they have seen the incessant flow of airplanes big and small to-ing and fro-ing overhead; they have sat bored at the gate waiting for the flight to leave; in short, they have been conditioned to see the airplane as just another form of crowded public transportation.

This is not to say there are no kids out there still captivated as we were. Perhaps the sheer mundaneness of aviation today is a stiffer test of their passion than we faced in an era when aviation was still new, exciting and forever pushing boundaries.

To come full circle with this series, it seems right to note once more the extraordinary ingenuity mankind has brought to bear on his newfound conquest of the air, which all began with recognition that the air can be foiled into supporting something heavier than itself. It seems so simple now, 100 years later, to see that we had only to look at nature’s birds to unlock the secret.

Makes you wonder what else is out there now for anyone to see who only cares to look.   

Next month: A special report on what might be in store for aviation in the next 100 years.