Take off, you hoser.

Over a decade ago, I remember thinking that Boeing was being pretty damn shortsighted. They were getting the 777 off the ground, so to speak, and were drawing a lot of criticism locally for contracting so much airframe work off to Japanese companies. Most of the criticism was labor-oriented, that Boeing was forsaking Puget Sound area workers.

Some of the criticism focused on the fact that Boeing was basically giving away their engineering know-how and that at some point, there wouldn’t be anything left. Someone (I believe someone connected to Boeing) defended this action, saying that they still held a critical advantage in wing technology which would give them the edge over any attempt at completion for whole airframes from their suppliers.

I thought that was a pretty naive assumption. I knew there were companies building small commercial jets and figured they’d used that experience to build a capacity for larger airframes that could eventually challenge Boeing while it was busy worrying about Airbus.

It’s interesting to see where things are now:

  • “Embraer”:http://www.embraer.com/, a Brazilian aircraft maker who started making small commercial jets a decade ago is taking orders for a model that will seat ~100.
  • “Bombardier”:http://www.bombardier.com has jets that seat as many as 80 and are looking for launch customers for a new jet that will seat 130 and offer a range up to 3000 miles.

Of course, I missed the real reason these manufacturers would be interesting: Small planes are starting to compete with larger aircraft. As Elisabeth Eaves notes in one of her “dispatches from the Paris Air show for Slate”:http://www.slate.com/id/2120937/entry/2121076/

Air Canada used to fly an Airbus A319, which seats 122 passengers, once a day between Calgary, Alberta, and Houston, Texas. As of this month, it flies a smaller jet, the 75-seat Bombardier CRJ 705, twice a day instead.

I’d made the mistake of accepting on Boeing’s own terms that larger jets would continue their singular importance to airtravel. Airbus made a bet along those lines with the A380, which can carry 500-800 passengers and is designed for the hub-and-spoke model favored by the big airlines. The problem they are facing is that during peak hours, takeoff and landing slots are saturated, so flying bigger planes will increase the number of passengers they can carry.

This assumes that the passengers really want to travel the hub-and-spoke way in the first place. The smaller aircraft makers are betting otherwise. The Calgary-Houston example aside, many of the smaller jets have been serving on regional duty, replacing turboprops to haul people from major hubs to smaller regional airports that don’t merit service from a 737. However, they clearly expect growth from selling to airlines flying between smaller cities, bypassing the major hubs altogether.

“Boeing”:http://www.boeing.com/commercial is pursuing a similar strategy, though at a different level of scale, by betting the company on a new aircraft, the 787 Dreamliner. The Dreamliner distinguishes itself not by sheer size, like the A380, but by delivering the per-passenger fuel efficiency and speed of a wide body aircraft in a mid-sized jet. They are doing so because they also believe that people would prefer point-to-point flights to the hub-and-spoke cattle-call, though they are targeting routes with heavier traffic (and greater distances) than Embraer and Bombardier.

“James Fallows”:http://www.jamesfallows.com/ has an excellent book called Free Flight that looks at some of the forces shaping the future of air travel. He thinks the future is even smaller, and focuses on the arrival of inexpensive small jets that carry as many people as your average car or SUV from startups like “Eclipse”:http://www.eclipseaviation.com/. These planes will make possible “airlines” like “DayJet”:http://www.dayjet.com/ that promise to sell air travel “per seat and on-demand.” If these air taxis come to pass, it may be possible to avoid the snarl of the large airports altogether, instead traveling between the small airports that are within 30 miles of most people’s origins and destinations for a price that’s competitive with a full-fare business seat.

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