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:: May 2012 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Contrarianistas,

To succeed as an aircraft industry analyst, I’d offer simple advice: Whatever most people seem to be thinking about technology, consider the opposite. That’s the conclusion I reached one recent sunny day this month in London, when I met with Dr. David Edgerton. As I’ve written in letters past, Dr. Edgerton is a leading debunker of pop futurism. I took him to lunch in hopes of learning more. I wasn’t disappointed.

Dr. Edgerton’s last book, Britain’s War Machine, is a well-documented revision to the idea that Britain in World War Two was run by bumbling Colonel Blimp-like clods, rescued only by US materiel and Soviet land power. In fact, he argues, national innovation and technology development were the real saviors for the UK military and economy. But The Shock Of The Old, to me his most important work, offers forward-looking revisionism rather than revisionist history. It argues against the tendency to overrate the impact of seemingly dramatic new technologies. Very often, Dr. Edgerton argues, what people tell you about future trends is complete rubbish, especially when technology is concerned.

As an aircraft analyst, this view speaks to me. Consider the grand concepts that were going to change everything in the last 25 years. In the late 1980s and early 1990s many believed that Japan would develop new technology and conquer the aerospace world. The idea that the A380 was large enough to allow luxury interiors, offering a “whole new way to fly,” was completely absurd, yet an embarrassing number of people believed it. Many people thought a new generation of very light jets and air taxis would transform air travel. One recent common belief: emerging manufacturers, led by Bombardier, were going to threaten the Airbus/Boeing monopoly. Also recently, many people believed that China had managed to build a fifth generation stealth fighter. All of these ideas gained strong public traction. Yet in each of these cases you’d have been well served by a healthy dose of skepticism.

The earlier history of our industry also provides plenty of cause for skepticism. There’s the obvious stuff like jet packs and flying cars. There’s also the less obvious stuff that’s largely been forgotten. Remember when air to air missiles were going to make fighter guns obsolete? Remember when surface to air missiles were going to make fighters obsolete?

In fact, my greatest regret as an analyst is that I haven’t consistently maintained techno-skepticism. I wish I’d been one of folks to doubt the “transformational” F-35 development plan (and perhaps even its design parameters). I wish I had the good sense to question the 787’s “transformational” outsourced design approach. I wish I’d been the only guy in high school to say, “Gee, do we really need to take a computer programming class for BASIC, and by the way, isn’t Pink Floyd kind of pretentious?” So many regrets.

Then there’s the future. Many, if not most, people believe the F-35 is the last inhabited fighter, and that UCAVs will come to dominate air power in the future. Many, if not most, people believe China has a very bright future as an aircraft manufacturer. Many, if not most, people believe that composites will take over as the airframe material of choice. All three of these suppositions are either highly debatable or probably wrong. Dr. Edgerton’s forward-looking revisionism is a useful tonic.

Beyond aviation and military issues, Dr. Edgerton’s ecumenical professorship lets him address dubious futuristic thinking in many other disciplines. Is biotech really the wave of the future? Is asteroid mining actually a plausible idea? Was there an urgent need for drastic front-loaded economic austerity measures in Europe? Is the US truly declining as a power? What if these big, dramatic ideas are simply wrong, or at least massively overstated? Dr. Edgerton’s work serves as a corrective to all the pablum out there.

As I flew home from London, I did an Edgerton-inspired experiment on the plane. Our industry worships at the shrine of the 747, and its cousins, the DC-10, L-1011, and A300. We all “know” that the advent of the twin aisle jet, and the high bypass turbofan, changed the world as we know it. They were catalysts for globalization, or transformational tectonic shift step changes, or some other awkward combination of superlatives. But there’s one problem. Look at the data, courtesy of The Airline Monitor. In 1960-1970, world airline traffic grew 309% (from 98 billion to 303 billion Revenue Passenger Miles). After the new widebodies arrived, in 1970-1980, it grew 214% (from 303 billion to 647 billion).

Let’s re-do the narrative, as Dr. Edgerton would. I’d go with: “The new twin aisle jets and high bypass engines arrived at a difficult time. Fuel was getting much more expensive. Global economic growth was slowing. The superior economics offered by the new technology made a positive contribution to the industry, but there were so many other market factors transpiring that we can’t measure the contribution made by this new equipment due to slower market growth.” How’s that for a bracing bucket of tepid water?

We shouldn’t ignore technology, but instead assess it from an incremental standpoint. The 787 and A350XWB look incrementally promising. But they’re not revolutionary enough to instantly obsolete the 767 and A330. The F-35 looks promising. But it isn’t revolutionary enough to instantly obsolete all of the other fighters built today. What particular new jetliner technology, by itself, ever really accelerated air travel? What new military technology, by itself, ever altered the balance of power?

Being a contrarian is good because wrong ideas go viral faster than correct ones. Perhaps it’s because of a human tendency to think we’re living in a crucial time. As mortals, End Of Days thinking comes easy to us. People like drama too, which explains the sudden, weird rise of the Tea Party in the U.S. We forget that previous generations (in society and in our aircraft industry) saw what seemed like massive change, but wound up muddling through in the usual way. Meanwhile, companies try to generate hype to bring in investors, for good and bad reasons (despite all the hype, the 747 and 787 were good reasons to invest in Boeing; the E500 and air taxis were really bad reasons to invest in Eclipse Aviation).

It’s hard to dodge fast-moving sensational-sounding ideas, because as memes, they’re kind of sticky. They’re easy to remember and highly exciting. In the aircraft business, how many times do you hear the terms transformational or disruptive or game changer? Now , how many times have you heard this lonely, unloved phrase: “This event/technology/decision could produce some market changes, although the extent and magnitude of these changes really isn’t clear just now, and the results may be both good and bad. We should look at data for empirical evidence.” You may already be asleep. Now, how about: It’s a whole new way to fly! There, you’re awake again.

As we parted company after lunch, I asked the good professor about the imminent Facebook IPO. We both laughed. Nothing else needed to be said. I expect we’re both now enjoying some healthy techno-Schadenfreude.

Yours, ‘Til Curb Your Techno-Enthusiasm Becomes A TV Series,
Richard Aboulafia
 

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