The Twilight Zone of Stalled Airplane Development

The record holder for fastest passenger jet flight between London and New York is a 54 year old English plane (the Vickers VC10) that ceased flying last week.
The record holder for fastest passenger jet flight between London and New York is a 54-year-old English plane (the Vickers VC10) that ceased flying last week.

There have been several aviation milestones during the last week or so, most notably the centenary of the first ever passenger flight.

Aviation has changed beyond even the wildest imagination of the pilot and passenger of that first short flight, and so too have the airplanes, but most of that technological change was in the first fifty years, and very little in the second fifty years.

In addition, Delta finally retired its last DC-9, a plane which first went into service almost exactly halfway between the first flight and now (ie in 1966) and for which the last unit was produced in 1982.  Its derivative models – the MD-80, the MD-90, and then the 717, continued to be produced until 2006, making for 41 years on the production line and 48 years in the skies – so far, because the plane is still being flown around the world by various operators.

Another venerable plane finally flew for the last time a week ago – the Vickers VC10.  This lovely plane first saw service in 1962 (54 years ago), and providing further confirmation about the total lack of airplane innovation over the last half century, it still holds the record for fastest passenger jet flight between London and New York (other than Concorde, of course).

Currently, look at any airport, and you’ll see it filled with 737s (first flown in 1967), or perhaps you’ll see a distinctive 747 (first flight in 1969) or, if you’re lucky, one of the ‘new’ super-jumbo planes, the A380, which barely qualifies as new, having been flying since April 2005 – soon it will be turning ten.

Now look on the roads around you.  You’ll see cars of different model years, and in some cases, some cars even have half-year ‘refreshes’ in addition to full year changes.  Sure, sometimes there is very little difference between one year’s model and the next, but as well as trivial annual changes, every five or ten years, most cars are totally redesigned; and engine choices change more often.

Why do cars change every year, but not airplanes?

Not a fair comparison, you say?  Okay then, let’s look not at mass-market and relatively low-priced cars; let’s look instead at another very expensive type of transportation product – a passenger ship.

Cruise lines come out with families of ships, but each class of ship seems to last only a few years before being replaced by a new series of ships (usually always bigger and allegedly ‘better’ than before).  Indeed, some passenger ships are built on unique ‘one off’ designs (think of the Cunard ‘Queen’ series of ships).  If passenger ship models change regularly, why not airplanes?

So, you might say, designing a new airplane is an enormously complicated process, involving millions of parts, thousands of assemblies, and billions of dollars, with a five to ten year lead time from deciding to create a new airplane model to seeing it enter into service.

But rather than passively accept this, doesn’t that beg the question ‘why does this have to be so?’.  What is so uniquely complicated about designing a plane that doesn’t also apply to road vehicles, or to high-speed trains, or to ships?

That’s not all.  Surely a 150,000 ton ship with living accommodation for 6,000 people, 2500 showers and 3000 toilets is much more complicated than a 500 ton airplane with seating for 400 people, ten toilets and no showers?  And while there are safety issues in a plane that might fall out of the sky, there are also safety issues inherent in ships that might sink, and of course cars and other vehicles which crash with dismaying regularity.

There’s little or nothing complicated or unknown or experimental when it comes to designing airplanes these days.  The principles of flight and the associated design issues haven’t changed – air pressure/resistance, lift and drag, etc is all the same today as it was in Wilbur and Orville’s day.

Modern Technology but Slower Development

Decades ago, a new airplane could be designed and built in three or four years, even in the case of revolutionary and truly new planes like the 707 and 747.  And that was in the days largely before computers, CAD/CAM, robotics, CNC milling, and all the other amazing advances in R&D and manufacturing that we now have.

Why does it now take twice as long to get a derivative plane into the skies as it did, back then, to launch a truly innovative new design for the first time?  The first ever passenger jet, or the enormously bigger game-changing 747, were both developed in less time than the latest minor tweaks to the 737 model series are taking.

Slower than Putting a Man on the Moon

To put it another way, the manned space program went from JFK’s speech to moon landing in eight years two months (25 May 1961 to 20 July 1969), less time than it took to get the 787 to go from announcement on 29 January 2003 to first commercial flight on 26 October 2011(eight years nine months).

Or, if you prefer, the delays alone in the 787 program (about 3.5 years in total, plus another three month suspension of service in 2013) are about the same as the time it took for Boeing to progress its most successful plane ever, the 737, from initial concept to project completion (preliminary design work began on 11 May, 1964, the plane first flew on 9 April 1967 and was commercially operating on 10 Feb 1968).

What this all points to is the ugly truth that airplane development is caught up in some sort of twilight zone, where development costs and lead times have soared beyond all comprehension, and perhaps because of this, innovation and development is almost frozen with little or nothing exciting or different as between the planes coming out of Airbus and Boeing today and those that were emerging ten, twenty, thirty and forty years earlier.  Indeed, the only changes, for most of us, have been negative changes.

How to Tell if a Plane is New or Old

The only way we can tell if we are in a modern or a historic plane is how small and hard the seat is – the smaller and harder it is, the newer the plane.

Although the planes and their engines are more fuel-efficient, and give the airlines much lower operating costs per mile and streamlined maintenance procedures, and although they are often larger than before, and with longer range, the space per passenger has become smaller and smaller, while we as people have grown bigger and bigger (as has also our luggage).

Who cares if the new model 777 is more fuel-efficient than its predecessor.  Who cares about its range, or even its passenger capacity.  The most important two metrics for us as passengers are comfort and cost.  Everyone would surely agree that – apart from the first class cabin – comfort has steadily declined rather than improved over the decades.

As for cost, please don’t offer up the long-past-its-use-by-date canard about deregulation leading to massively lower airfares so what can we expect other than massively poorer quality of service.  While it is true that airfares did drop significantly in the first two or so decades after deregulation, so too did airline operating costs, but in the last five or so years, airfares (and the entire new galaxy of fees and surcharges) have been steadily rising (even though airline costs and profitability continues to improve).

And while deregulation may have originally seen an outbreak of market competition, today, with four airlines controlling 80% of the US aviation market, we’re lacking in any competitive pressures at all.

The Need for Speed

Total travel times and airplane speeds are slower than they were twenty and more years ago.  The fastest 747 was the short-lived 747SP, which was produced for only six years between 1976 – 1982.  The 707 series of planes, first flown in 1957, cruised at a higher speed than the latest model 787 (570 – 615 mph compared to 567 mph).  Worse still, some airlines these days fly their jets at less than recommended cruise speed so as to cut down on fuel costs.

At least on the roads we’ve long since lost the double nickel (55 mph) speed limit.  But in the skies, self-imposed speed limits are being tightened.

Another data point – the average age of a US motor vehicle is 11.4 years, the oldest it has ever been (in 1995 it was 8.4 years).  But what of the average passenger jet?  That number is difficult to establish, but research from Boeing suggests that the average economic life of a plane, as measured by the point at which 50% of planes have retired, is currently around 25 years.  Cruise ships are typically taken out of North American service after 15 – 20 years.  With such minimal innovation, airlines have no motivation to upgrade to new models.

Our initial – and unanswered – question was to ask why airplane models are so slowly changing, unlike other types of passenger transportation.  Our anxious follow-up question is to wonder – could it be that this is as good as it gets?  That airplane design technology has now been perfected, and there is no hope for anything better – either for the airlines as airplane operators, or for us as airplane passengers?

That’s a notion we roundly reject with a single word.  Speed.  (Yes, there are lots of other reasons, too, but this is a big one.)

Air travel is all about speed – getting to far away places, quickly.  So whatever happened to Boeing’s Sonic Cruiser concept – a plane that would fly at almost the speed of sound, almost 20% faster than the cruising speed of today’s jets?  Where is a replacement to the Concorde (which, at the risk of becoming a broken record, we must again point out was an enormously profitable plane, and if supersonic technology had the same amount of R&D and technology invested in it over the last 50 years since the Concorde project, it would surely have improved (economically) beyond all recognition the same way that subsonic passenger jets have massively improved their operating costs and fuel efficiencies.

More than Just Airplane Development

As I write this, the headlines are full of stories of hundreds of flights being cancelled due to weather.  There’s something so sadly predictable about weather disruptions, especially in winter.

The week before, an analysis suggested that the airline industry is chronically under-reporting the rate of flight delays, system-wide, due to a loophole in the federal reporting requirements.

Inbetween times, we’ve become passively accepting of delayed flights, longer times to check-in (it took me 55 minutes of standing in line to check-in for an Air France flight a couple of weeks ago), and ridiculous ‘security’ indignities and Customs/Immigration waits.

Our bags continue to be lost or damaged with appalling regularity, no matter how much the airlines charge us to transport them.

All these things could be improved, reduced, optimized, prevented.  The ‘Twilight Zone’ extends beyond the planes and embraces everything associated with them.

Ongoing Innovation is Important

Where are the innovative airplane designers and manufacturers for the second hundred years of commercial airplanes?  The first 50 years saw new airplane designs pretty much every year, and dozens of manufacturers.  The second fifty years saw this collapse down to two surviving manufacturers, and truly new designs once every eight – ten years.

In Boeing’s case, eight new designs (the 707, 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787) came out in the period from 1957 through the present day, with no new planes scheduled to appear for the next ten or more years (it is thought that work might vaguely start on a 757 replacement in 2017 and a 737 replacement in 2020 – which would be 56 years after work started on developing the original 737.  One could even argue that the 757 and 737 were derivative designs of the 707, but if we give Boeing the benefit of the doubt and count them separately, that is a mere eight new plane types in perhaps 70 years.

Airbus is only slightly better.  If we lump all the A320 series models together, we see seven airplane families (A300, A310, A320, A330, A340, A380 and now the A350) from 1969 through the present day, and no new types expected for a decade or more from them either.

These questions are important.  They are important to us as air travelers, and to the airlines who of course wish the best possible planes in order to operate efficiently and profitably.  We are all relying on Airbus and Boeing to honor their obligation to keep pushing forward at the frontiers of flight, and by all relevant measures, we are being let down.

It is not by chance that air travel numbers are struggling to keep up with population growth in the US.  We are being forced to accept yesterday’s technologies, and Soviet style ‘services’.

None of these are new issues.  The virtual freeze on airplane development has been out there for decades.  For example, please enjoy an article I wrote almost ten years ago, and which has stood the passing of time very well – I updated it last week merely to add further to the points made, rather than to soften or change them.  It is one part of a five-part look at Boeing, its past, present and future.  You might find the entire series interesting.

Here’s a direct link to the fourth part of the series, which looks at Boeing’s future.  There are links to the other parts from that part, of course.

4 thoughts on “The Twilight Zone of Stalled Airplane Development”

  1. What a fascinating piece, and question. Why aren’t the aircraft manufacturers innovating at the rate they used to, or at the rate that other manufacturers do?

    I guess the two main manufacturers would argue that they do innovate, that today’s version of a 25-year-old plane is thoroughly different from the original.

    That may be partly true, but I imagine the credit ought to go to component manufacturers who, while the airframe guys have organized a duopoly, still have to compete for business.

    Boeing might also argue that the 787 is full of innovations. But it’s not exactly winning a lot of credit on that is it?

    So what pressures to innovate are missing from the aviation business that are present in the auto or shipbuilding businesses? Or, for that matter, train manufacturing which, though docile in North America, is very lively in selected other places (France, Japan, China for instance)?

    I’m not sure competition is the whole answer. There’s not a lot of innovation in the smaller jet classes either, and there’s more competition in them.

    Is it possible that air customer actually don’t like too much innovation? I think an awful lot of us are nervous fliers, and we like the reassurance of flying in metal tubes that are pretty much the same as the metal tubes we’ve always flown in.

    Just wondering.

    1. Thanks for, in turn, some more fascinating questions and thoughts.

      I suppose there are two types of innovation – ‘micro’ and ‘macro’. Or perhaps, evolutionary and revolutionary.

      You are correct, there have been plenty of minor, micro, evolutionary type changes, and perhaps even some innovations. Personal multi-channel seat back videos, for example (although mainly available internationally rather than domestically).

      And lots of changes ‘under the hood’ – a shift from flying by wire (literally – flight controls connected by cables to the command levers in the cockpit) to flying by wire in the sense of everything is done electronically and indirectly by the pilot ‘telling’ a computer what he wants to happen and the computer deciding how to then move the plane’s control surfaces. One could argue that the benefits of this particular evolution are unclear and not without some downside risks (ie pilots no longer able to directly fly a plane themselves)!

      What I’m really hoping/looking for though are the macro/revolutionary innovations that used to be commonplace. Transformational things that really change the total air travel experience. About the only change we’ve had in the last fifty years is planes being able to fly longer without needing to land and refuel – hardly transformational at all; and all the while, the comfort factor in flying has been reduced more and more.

      Why can’t we have appreciably faster planes instead of subtly slower ones? Why can’t we have truly quieter planes instead of needing to buy $300 Bose Quiet Comfort Noise Cancelling headphones? Why can’t the larger planes with less operating cost and improved fuel efficiency give us some more space rather than less space per passenger?

      I don’t think passengers are as averse to new planes as might be thought; indeed, if ever there was a new plane to avoid, it is the 787, and there’s been no clear sign of any weaker support for 787 served routes than for other planes/airlines on the same route.

      I’m not answering your questions (or my own earlier questions), merely restating them some. I wanted to point to one other part of my article, though, which also deserves restating. Why has airplane design become so complicated, expensive, and slow? With all the technological developments, design aids, and ever-growing body of aeronautical knowledge, surely designing new planes should be simple, quick, and easy now, rather than ever more harder.

  2. That last point is important too. Sometimes it takes a transformative personality, a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, to drive genuine commercial change. But guys like that are high-risk for the companies involved. There are a lot more figures like that who are failures than we hear about, for obvious reasons. It’s possible that long-established, shareholder-owned companies like Boeing simply can’t go that route.

    1. I’m sure you are correct about the risk-averse nature of Boeing today (although I continue to not understand why developing new planes has become so expensive, time consuming, and therefore risky).

      But – and here’s a key thing. That wasn’t always the case. Boeing publicly boasted about having ‘bet the company’ first on the development of the 707, and then again a second time with the development of the 747. Fortunately, both bets paid off, but rather than encourage Boeing to continue with further aggressive development, it picked up its toys and went into the corner to sulk when the US government stopped subsidizing its SST development, and has never been the same, since.

      Boeing’s new boast, with the 787, was how little financial risk it was taking on itself, due to spreading the development process among many partner companies/suppliers. Of course, the irony in that is that its ‘low risk’ approach to airplane development ended up proving more risky and more costly than its former ‘high risk’ in-house approach.

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