Sometime in the late 1990s, an extraordinary thing happened to the transportation business: The average overall speed of travel actually started to go down. No one knows for sure, but the consensus seems to be that it was the first time that had happened since the invention of the automobile.
To entrepreneurs, that kind of logic-defying setback to progress represents a huge opportunity. In Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Travel, James Fallows tracks the efforts of two upstart aircraft manufacturers to invent small planes that would allow people to avoid delay-plagued airports and the airlines that use them. The odds for these startups are long, as they always are for companies attempting to bust up an oligopoly like the aircraft businesses'. But Fallows believes in these companies, and he has the advantage of writing for disgruntled readers who are rooting for someone — anyone — to rescue them from the bottlenecks at O'Hare.
How bad is it out there? According to Fallows, more than 80% of airline traffic departs or lands at the busiest 1% of airports. In the meantime, smaller airports have very little traffic, and that's what gives the dreamers in Fallows's book hope. If aircraft companies can produce planes that are fast, comfortable, cheap, and safe, the aircraft could serve as the fleet for air-taxi services based at those airports.
According to Fallows, there is a web of related reasons why these planes don't already exist. First, Cessna and other manufacturers slowed their research and development efforts in the 1980s — and eventually halted new production altogether — because of the cost of lawsuits resulting from plane crashes. In the meantime, airfares were on the decline thanks to deregulation, so people who had become pilots merely to save money on travel were no longer interested in buying their own planes.
By the 1990s, the sorry state of the small planes available didn't provide much incentive for the aspiring pilots who could turn into customers for the manufacturers. "The machines were so cruddy," Fallows writes, recalling his astonishment when he surveyed the airfield as he arrived for his first lesson. Essentially, he says, the available planes were like American cars in the 1970s. Cirrus Design Corp. and Eclipse Aviation Corp., the two companies that Fallows profiles, want to give pilots the same kinds of choices that auto buyers had in the 1970s when foreign automakers entered the market with superior products.
To Fallows, the saga of these two companies is more about the new world of technology generally than it is about avionics in particular, and he's well positioned to make that judgment. Not only is he a pilot himself, but he's also coming off a stint at Microsoft, where he helped the company build new features into Word. Throughout the book, he comes up with useful high-tech analogies that help place Cirrus and Eclipse's efforts into context.
Cirrus's first small plane , which has been on the market for two years, tries to do what Apple did for personal computers. From the distinctive teardrop shape to the comfortable auto-like interior, Cirrus's first plane is iMac-like in its attention to design. From a user-interface perspective, Cirrus is to the old Cessna or Piper planes as the Apple operating system was to Microsoft's DOS. The idea is to take away all the old knobs and dials, and provide an intuitive, digital readout that gives pilots a better sense of where they are and where they're headed.
Fallows spills a lot of ink tracking the ups and downs of Cirrus's quest and profiling the brothers who started the company, and it's a charming tale. Right now, however, the company's planes aren't fast enough or advanced enough to serve as the backbone of a national air-taxi system. The company has set its sights on the enthusiast market, but the number of people who pilot their own planes isn't likely to get much larger anytime soon. Cirrus planes start at about $200,000, and learning to fly takes too much time to attract all but the most passionate aviation nuts. Sadly, we're still a long way from traveling like the Jetsons.
As a business story about a potentially disruptive technology, Eclipse is a far more important tale. The company aims to create a small jet , seating five or six people, that wealthy individuals, corporations, and air-taxi services could use. The question Fallows asks — and it cuts to heart of the innovation problem in the small-plane business — is this: Why can't Moore's Law apply to the airplane business too?
The executives supervising the Eclipse project wondered the same thing. In fact, they knew that they would be in big trouble if they couldn't make Moore's Law apply. "This has been an industry that measured product innovation in single-digit numbers," notes Vern Raburn, the former Microsoft executive who is now running Eclipse. "I came out of a world that measured product innovation in order-of-magnitude changes.... You can't break into a new business with a 2% improvement."
While the plane is still two years away from hitting the market, Eclipse has already promised that, at $837,500, the plane will cost less than half of the lowest-priced jet currently on the market. Meanwhile, it hopes to reduce the cost of the engine turbines by a factor of 10. The compressor inside is made of a single piece of titanium (not thousands of pieces, as it was until recently) and weighs less than a pound and a quarter. It "is absolutely analogous to the semiconductor business," Raburn tells Fallows, describing the company's progress. "The real magic of Intel is the fab process."
To innovate like Intel costs money, about $300 million in this instance, more than three times what Cirrus spent to bring its first plane to market. To get it, Eclipse has turned to investors who know technology quite well. Paul Allen, who has his own Boeing 757, has invested, as has Bill Gates, who travels in a smaller, more anonymous private jet.
If the Eclipse does make it to market without any regulatory disasters, there are plenty of companies that will be able to travel more affordably. Still, the biggest disruption in the industry would arrive if a company could find a way to use these jets to provide economical jet-taxi service to and from all of those lightly used airfields. That would unleash a torrent of demand for small jets and would undoubtedly lead to plenty of competition for Eclipse — and to much more Intel-like innovation in the industry.
There's one big problem with this scenario though. People are afraid to fly on small planes. According to Fallows, you have somewhere between two and six times as much chance of dying in a small plane as you do in a car. Still, even if Cirrus and Eclipse can reduce the odds of defying death to those of a Volvo, it probably wouldn't be good enough.
To raise another tech analogy, fear of small planes is sort of like the fear of buying stuff online. Getting your credit-card statement mailed to you each month poses a greater security risk than purchasing a book on Amazon.com, but that doesn't stop many millions of people from staying away from Web shopping altogether. Flying around in a tiny tube in the clouds is similar, except it's your body that's at risk, not your bank account.
Then again, Amazon already has more than 30 million customers. I'll bet that at least half of them have been stuck in O'Hare in the past year.
Sidebar: Cheat Sheet
Are you spending too much time in line at airports to read James Fallows's intriguing new book? Here are some highlights:
"As flight delays reached record levels in the summer of 2000, an executive from an airplane company told me that he'd made a bet with a friend. The bet concerned how long it would be until an argument over cancelled flights or lost bags led one frustrated person to kill another in an airport. It would have happened already, the man said, except that security gates in airports keep passengers from bringing in guns."
"Eclipse estimated that the air-taxi market might amount to 30 million trips a year, within a decade. That would be less than 10 percent of the projected airline total for that time, but it would still mean a fleet of 35,000 small jets."
Get in the Plane ... Stay Out of the Pool
"In the U.S. in 1997, 667 people died in small plane crashes, 821 died on pleasure boats, 825 died while riding bicycles, and more than 2,100 died while riding motorcycles. Also, a dozen people drown in the U.S. each day. "
Go Faster ... Drive!
"When a NASA official kept a log of his own airline travel, he discovered that for trips less than 400 miles, flying was no faster than driving."
Ron Lieber (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in New York. He has nightmares about LaGuardia.