AINsight: Much Progress Lies Ahead

 - November 16, 2018, 7:42 AM

As many Americans head out on their annual hunt for turkey and all the fixings, the fortunate few have a larger and more flight-capable bird on their radar: a business airplane. Buyer interest in the new flock of aircraft taking to the skies is readily apparent, with OEM sales teams, aircraft brokers and dealers, and their networks of transactions professionals keen to serve an exquisite meal. With more than 50 in-production turbine-powered business aircraft models to choose from—and a smorgasbord of pre-owned models that cover the spectrum from soup to nuts—there is seemingly more than enough on the table for everyone to enjoy.

As we get ready to close out a very active 2018, a year that will almost certainly be remembered as the best in the last 10 for new aircraft sales, there are both CAVU and stormy skies ahead for the business aviation industry. On the bright side, there is an enormous and basically untapped market for private air transport. Mobility by air is surely one of the ultimate freedoms, as even a casual observation of an eagle or falcon in flight will attest. Rather than imagining the air traffic snarl, spending energy presuming chaos and dismissing progress, and drumming up fear of midairs and the need for a carefully pre-planned “regulatory frameworks,” there are other ways to proceed. As with most things, it may all start with the last four inches of progress, penetrating that intriguing space between people’s ears.

Across the developing world, satellite dishes on shanty town rooftops and mobile phones in the hands of people who are less privileged than you and I signal something vitally important. Most everyone needs/wants/prefers to be in touch. While audio and video technologies have leaped forward at the same time that real user costs have plummeted, transportation technologies have seriously lagged, dragged along by the realities of physical infrastructure and the logistics challenges of stuffing squishy, 98.6° F individuals into various shapes and sizes of mostly wheeled vehicles. In the civil aviation world, nowhere is this more apparent than in private air transport, where inflation-adjusted acquisition and operating costs have tended to increase over time, bucking Moore’s law, at least for the time being.

General aviation, private aviation, business or corporate aviation, training, charter, fractional, membership clubs, humanitarian flying, medevac, policing and patrol, special missions, the industry we serve is far-reaching, complex, and frankly disaggregated. Is it any wonder that even the higher-volume manufacturers serving this market strain to produce more than a couple of handfuls of aircraft in a given month? 

At this time of year, we can surely be thankful for how far our industry has come in serving the needs of customers for high-speed personal air transport. Much, much more progress is ahead, as designers realize the full potential of emerging technologies that will lower the cost of personal air transport, and broaden the reach and appeal of this best way to fly. At one end of the technology spectrum, rapid advancements in electrically powered air vehicles offer a glimpse into the future a lower-cost, lower-impact future. At the other end, supersonic civil jets are clearly speeding to market, enabling for the first time the stitching together of vast empires of investments with the unmatched benefits of face-to-face interaction. It is hard to imagine technology developments that are as far-reaching and transformational to the way people live and work as those that can be led by general aviation.

Meanwhile, back on the ground and in the offices, cubicles, and shop floors of a vast industry of hard-working professionals, sales plans must be met, pre-buy inspections and pricing negotiations must be finalized, and aircraft must be completed and delivered (despite the inevitable wax crayon quality-control marks on the freshly painted fuselage) by December 31, 2018. The realities of ensuring that all (or at least almost all) of the details are accomplished on time and on budget and that the customer taxis away delighted are enough to get any technology futurist to sit up and take notice. For without all of this hard work, the job of designing and developing for the future is probably never going to get funded—or happen. For all the good work being done throughout the year, and in the weeks to come before the ringing in of the New Year, it is always a good time to be thankful for the teams of people who work with us to make things happen and make airplanes fly. A mix of physics, rocket science, and a whole lot of human factors, aviation is an exciting, impactful, and global business that I am thankful to be a part of. 

Back in 1903, two bicycle enthusiasts from Ohio with uncanny curiosity and adept mechanical skills taught themselves how to build and fly a heavier-than-air powered vehicle that could safely sustain manned flight. That would not be a casual addition to a resume of qualifications and experience, even for a guy like Einstein. Using advanced technologies like carbon-fiber construction (also known as “wood”) and wing-bending, fly-by-wire control surfaces, the brothers Wright were aeronautical pioneers and many, many years ahead of their time.  Although it is almost comical to think of a lean-to shack on the windswept beaches of Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, as such, this was one of the original aerospace “Skunk Works.”

Allowing product design and development teams the time, budget, and leadership support to work on complex problems in a collaborative but challenging environment can generate amazing discoveries that have the power to create and/or transform entire industries. Sadly, today’s “quarterly earnings focus” has many publicly traded aerospace and defense companies hyper-focused on pleasing investors with incrementally improved financial performance ahead of delighting customers with remarkably better solutions, especially customers that are not yet served or even imagined to be part of an addressable market. 

Did Wilbur and Orville Wright have all of the resources and tools at their disposal to accomplish their dreams? Clearly not, if they had to invent a wind tunnel and work with a partner to design and build their own engine. These sorts of obstacles were probably seen as puzzles to be solved rather than headaches to be squelched by a pair of entrepreneurs who would be much more than welcome on any product development “tiger team” today. My sense is that they would marvel at some of the progress, yet ask some gut-wrenching questions about where we have yet to achieve success, such as in low-cost personal air transport.

For now, I am thankful to live in a time and place where freedom and technological innovation are embraced, and aviation is woven into the societal DNA