Airliners Are Slower and Less Comfortable Than They Were Half a Century Ago. Why?

With an order of magnitude better technologies, the aviation industry has improved the customer experience very little.

Episode Summary:

If you’re old enough to have flown on a Boeing 707, or a Douglas DC-8, or even a Lockheed L-1011, you remember a time when jets were fast, comfortable and often both. Today, there are slower and are less comfortable, at least in Economy. Did it have to be this way? Jim Anderton argues, “No”.

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Transcript of this week’s show:

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The aerospace industry, especially air framers making commercial transports, has always fascinated me. In the form of manufacturing where I started, automotive, designing and developing new products was a time-honoured process of incremental improvements and well understood timelines, costs and ultimate profitability. Now imagine that your task is to engineer a new product which is so expensive to develop that its market failure will cause the bankruptcy of your company.

That’s the world that major air framers like Boeing face, and it’s a major reason why great names like Lockheed, Convair, and Douglas have disappeared. But when they existed, they did great things. Douglas, Convair and Boeing’s early jetliners were all faster than today’s aircraft and back in coach, where I usually sit, we were a lot more comfortable as well. But as air travel became popular in the 1970s, and oil prices increased, the imperative to deliver lower seat mile costs led to today’s generation of slower, higher density but much more fuel-efficient aircraft. But what if the industry had gone in a different direction?

I’m not talking about Concorde or the ill-fated Boeing 2707 supersonic airliner project, but this: The flying wing. Now part of the big Northrop Grumman Corporation, Northrop was a small manufacturer of innovative designs, and its founder Jack Northrop had a particular fascination with flying wings. There are lots of advantages to this design. A major one is a very large internal volume, introducing the intriguing possibility of airliners that are limited more by takeoff weight that by useable interior volume. Could every seat be a lie flat seat? Possibly.

Flying wings are used very successfully for stealth bombers, but the company’s hopes in the late 1940s, that military flying wings would spawn a new generation of comfortable, fast airliners, never came to pass. Boeing later looked at another advanced design called the Sonic Cruiser. That didn’t happen either. Why? Well, put simply, the need to gamble the entire company on every new product means that every new product must be a sales success.

And that means that it must be designed conservatively, and airlines generally punish out-of-the-box thinking, or just as bad, an aircraft that arrives in a changed market from the one for which it was designed. The Airbus A380 super jumbo as an example. So, airframers change materials, use more efficient engines, add more advanced avionics, and package it all in aircraft that would hardly look out of place on the ramp at any major airport in 1967.

What will it take to get someone to do to the aviation industry what Elon Musk did the auto industry? The short answer is, dollars. Could a startup take on the airframe giants and do something radically different? Well, for any billionaires watching this, it could be a lot more challenging than flying into space.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.