:: July 2003 Letter ::


Dear Fellow Airplane Counters,

I spent a week wandering through the Paris Air Show. Watched tumbleweeds blow through chalet alleys. Aimlessly talked about nothing over wine-soaked lunches while European fighters flew overhead, in futile competition with absent US planes. Big event: Emirates placed an order for jetliners they won’t take until Dubai gets a kosher butcher. Great. Just great. As Comic-Book Guy on The Simpsons would say, “Worst Air Show Ever.” And here I am, back at home with no news that could justify my trip. Unless…

For me, the unquestioned highlight of the show was Boeing’s 7E7 naming talk. “Dreamliner?” “Global Cruiser?” “OhGodPleaseNoneOfTheAbove?” Irony is humor, infused with self-awareness. But this was an irony-free zone. Yet this futile exercise gave me a sudden epiphany. Don’t name your plane. If you must, make sure it has a number, too.

Jetliners provide the best examples. Numbered planes (Airbus A3-somethings, Boeing B7-somethings, and most Douglas DC/MD-somethings) prospered. Named planes—Comet, Mercure, Caravelle, Trident, etc.—were economic catastrophes with wings. The L-1011 TriStar was cursed as the only US jetliner with any kind of name appended. And Airbus has a golden opportunity to confirm doubts about the A380’s profitability by naming it—EmiratesLiner?

This works on the military side, too. F-4, F-5, F-15, F-16, F/A-18. Tornado, Viggen, Gripen, Lightning, Typhoon. Spot the cash-rich programs. Give your fighter a number. Don’t name it like a strong mixed drink. Dassault only got into trouble by abandoning their profitable decades-old Mirage III/IV/V/F1/2000 numbers system and switching to Rafale. When Joint Strike Fighter grew up, it was given its F-35 number, which coincided with a steady increase in funding and program security (OK, there’s no causality there, but bear with me). And Europe’s new military transport only became a reality when it graduated from Future Large Aircraft to A400M.

Regional planes offer plenty of exceptions—the Saab 2000, IPTN N-250, Do 328, and other numerical failures. Then again, BAE might have sealed the fate of the 146 by renaming it Avroliner.

In conclusion, this was not exactly a news-rich Paris show. This anti-name revelation is all I learned from it. Better try to add some value and rescue this letter from being just a collection of anecdotes:

As engineers were replaced by marketing and accounting types in the leadership of aerospace corporations, the non-engineers might have felt a need to prove their technical mettle. Segway, an engineer-driven enterprise, has no need of numbers for its eponymous product. This was what probably happened to Rolls-Royce when the river naming system (Spey, Tay, Conway, Avon, etc.) was replaced with the pseudo-scientific-sounding numbers system (RB.211-535E4, RB.199, etc). Curiously, a compromise was reached, resulting in the current Trent 700/800/900 series.

Or, perhaps, the transition from names to numbers reflected the end of the magic days of fun and profit in the aviation industry. Post-deregulation cost-driven airline carriers offer a commodity, like a bus or train service. They don’t have time for glamorous names like Constellation or Brittania. Their successful planes are nothing more than numbered tools that earn cash, or try to. Even the days of relying for profits on the non-commodity Business and First Class sections are ending. The retirement this year of the last named plane, Concorde, is surely proof (and a reflection) of that.

With business jets, we can witness this process as it happens. The romance of named business jets is being gradually replaced with “price point management,” with the big players competing directly for specific market niches. Thus, the Astra, Galaxy, and Gulfstream IV get renamed Gulfstream 100, 200, and 400. Bombardier’s Continental is renamed Challenger 300 and Raytheon’s Beechjet becomes the Hawker 400, junior versions of their larger stablemates (Challenger 604 and Hawker 800, respectively). As with jetliners, the names, the magic, and the profit margins are going away. In the business of peoplemoving, there’s no time for glamour.

And what of the Dreamliner? Well, that marketing-department-led charge for a neat moniker and public panache isn’t totally brain-dead. Consider: overcapacity (airline and airliner) leads to intense competition, and price wars. Clever marketing, in theory, allows companies to compete on something other than price, thereby raising profits. This marketing may seem odd to aviation professionals (see also the A380 shopping mall/food court) but it might just work on the general public. On the other hand, I thought 7E7 sounded pretty cool. And Dreamliner has an unfortunate connotation of non-reality. It also sounds like an orange-vanilla popsicle I used to enjoy as a child.

Well, that’s it for Paris news. Again, it was a bit quiet, thanks to the US no-show. Regarding the issue of whether the show will endure, there’s just one question: how would you rather hold a meeting? Over a Phelan-Segur ’96 in a nice chalet under a neat flying display, or over tasteless iced tea in a “zero-tolerance” on-site restaurant under harsh fluorescent lights?

July’s aircraft reports include the World Rotorcraft Overview, the 747, F-35 JSF, ERJ-170/190, G.222/C-27, L-39, Dash 8, Hawker/Horizon, Beechjet, Learjet, Nimrod, CH-47, and the World Airline inventory appendix. Stay out of the heat. But don’t drink the iced tea.

Yours, ‘til People Get Numbers Too,

Richard Aboulafia 1
(703) 385-1992 ext. 103


© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006