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:: January 2004 letter ::

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Dear Frequent Readers,

Frequent readers of this column might recall that I promised two letters to commemorate the 100th anniversary of powered, inhabited flight. This month: belated idealism, or as close as I can get to it. Here’s my list of the best aspects of aviation, as seen by me during the past 15 years. For obvious reasons, I’ll focus on the civil market.

1. Those Weird Boeing Ads. About ten years ago, Boeing placed a bunch of magazine ads that can best be described as eccentric but high-minded. Featuring a random variety of cool souvenirs—Maori warrior masks, Italian apothecary jars, Mongolian funeral hats, etc—the ads exhorted the reader to travel, just for the sake of seeing the world. They also served as a reminder: thanks to widebody planes and high bypass turbofans, middle class slobs like me can travel wherever we want (although my souvenir shelf holds more prosaic stuff, like thermometer-holding woodchucks and Pennsylvania Dutch fly killers). These days, of course, most Boeing ads emphasize Net-Centric Kill-Chain Dynamics, or something like that, which says volumes about the market and the industry.

2. Airbus. For some people, it’s the company you love to hate, and the company you hate to love. Sure, they came from a different economic universe where P+L sheets were scribbled on the backs of envelopes. And there is the ongoing government support issue (it’s legal, but after 33 prosperous years, it really is time to stop sponging off your parents). But if anyone outside our industry asks how Airbus knocked Douglas and Lockheed out of the market, and how they became Boeing’s equal, there’s only one answer that matters: They invested heavily in the future. The other guys didn’t. The rest is details. As a result, we’re flying on better (and less expensive) planes. Besides, in 1970 Europe’s transport makers were contemplating following up Concorde with something just slightly more practical, like a mile-long nuclear powered helicopter. The Airbus concept saved them all from certain doom.

3. Boeing’s 777. While Airbus attacks the dying 747 market, Boeing is making hay with the basically unchallenged 777-200ER. Anyone without a 777 is either not a global player, or Lufthansa. Pretty cool achievement. Now that we know the 7E7 won’t just be a tricked-out 767, Boeing might just do it again in the 200/250-seat segment.

4. Business aircraft. I’ve taken a grand total of seven business jet flights—just enough to know what I’m missing, and to really feel some angry bolshevist class resentment. Yet though it’s easy to denounce these things as toys of the rich, they’re useful tools, too. Something that speaks to me: images of 1930’s Hollywood types, tooling around in Lockheed Vegas. Think: how many fewer Three Stooges films would have been made without that useful form of private transport?

5. Southwest Airlines. Every day, a DC-9 full of people is killed on the nation’s roads. Here’s a carrier that competes with the family car, and they haven’t had a single casualty in 30+ years of operations (as fellow analyst George Hamlin said about a Southwest 737 that careened off the runway and came to rest six inches from a gas station: “Talk about leading a charmed life.”). At its best, aviation can be a lifesaver. Also, Southwest was the first successful low-cost carrier—the start of some serious troublemaking in this industry. Of course, it’s always useful to remember that each plane a discount carrier takes these days means one less plane delivered to the dinosaur-like majors.

6. Kaman. Charlie Kaman is still alive. Kaman still makes helicopters. They might not be in that business “towards the end of our forecast period,” as we forecasters say, but in the meantime Kaman is the last notable aircraft company with a living founder. And as asset managers take over this industry, it would be great to see more companies with leaders that care about aviation more than the bottom line. The best newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc) are run by families, even if their companies are publicly listed. Why can’t aviation be like that too?

7. Saab. I was hoping to avoid the combat side of things out of some misplaced idealism. But Saab? Defending Sweden is about as far as you can get from controversy. And for six decades, the company has managed to build really cool fighters that get the job done. Did they reinvent the wheel, with planes that are inherently pricey due to one-per-month production rates? Sure. But they built a series of effective national fighter aircraft without bankrupting the nation. No other small country has done this, even Israel.

Actually, Saab and Kaman both represent a dying concept: innovative designers working around a unique philosophy. Both companies will stay around as successful subcontractors, even if they wind up as divisions of a larger parent. Yet with the gray goo, of monochromatic homogeneity oozing over this industry, it’s good to be reminded of the national and personal diversity that once defined aerospace. We’re seeing the last gasps of it right now. I have this nightmare image of making pie charts twenty years hence and inputting the numbers: 25% Airbus A320/330/340/380, 25% Boeing 737/777/7E7, 25% Lockheed F-35, 15% CRJ/ERJ, and 10% “Other.” Let’s enjoy those Gripens and K-MAXes while they last.

This being January, we’ve updated the World Aircraft Overview. If you want a color version, email me. Also updated: E-8 JSTARS, B-2, Comanche, MiG-29, S-92, C-212, and Challenger 300. Oh, and as they say in the big leagues, we are initiating coverage of the 7E7.

Yours For A Fun 2004,

Richard Aboulafia

 

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