Aviation Democratization Kinda Gives Me A Headache

38

Presidential speechwriters have a term called “reaching for the marble.” When you understand that it refers to the pithy text on the friezes of the nation’s iconic monuments, the connotation is so clear that I needn’t waste pixels listing the qualifying words. This being an aviation blog, I’ll segue straight into the aviation version of frieze speak: Democratization. It’s not an everyday reference, but you hear it often enough and I heard it last week during an online briefing when JoeBen Bivert was describing what his would-be revolutionary Joby (sorta) tilt-rotor aircraft will do for aviation. (Or should that be to aviation.)

In this context, democratization refers not to high-minded governing principles but the secondary definition of “the action of making something accessible to everyone.” Presumably, Bivert was referring not to the aircraft itself, but the service it will provide: widely available urban and short-range interurban transportation, otherwise known as UAM or urban air mobility.

Given how we glaze your eyes with a story on this emerging segment every other day or so, I don’t have to explain that it’s kind of a thing now. Joby has fashioned itself as the one to beat in this market and has started to pull the curtain back on its heretofore secretive development work. This it must do to attract the enormous amount of capital required to finance this vision.

Bivert’s frieze-worthy tagline is to “save a billion people an hour a day.” Let’s parse that to understand that ambitious doesn’t begin to define this idea; even revolutionary falls short. Also, assume this takes place over a number of years, with some kind of ramp up. For the sake of a sane argument and avoiding me fat fingering big numbers on my non-visionary calculator, let me dial it back 99 percent to saving 10 million people a half hour a day. (Eventually.) Using Joby’s own 40 trips a day per aircraft estimate, an average of, say, 20-minute trips with 75 percent load factor, each aircraft would fly 120 passengers per day. If my math is right, that would require about 85,000 aircraft, allowing for some spares. That’s more than four times the entire output of Boeing and Airbus for the past 20 years. Thought of in automotive terms, it’s not such a big number; Ford makes more than 900,000 F-150s a year. Scaled up to the full 1B, Joby would be building 10 times that number. But airplanes aren’t cars and efforts to apply automotive methods to aircraft production haven’t been impressive, even considering Ford’s Willow Run plan for the B-24 during World War II.

So even with my deep discounting, 85,000 is a staggering number. Joby proposes to do this with highly automated robotic factories and advanced manufacturing techniques. And even in the ramp up phase, they’ll need to turn these things out like sausages to make these numbers. Without opining on whether this is even possible—frankly, I just don’t know—if successful at even the lower numbers, would it democratize air transportation? Cripes, how could it not? You couldn’t open a car door without bumping into one of these things and the jolt to aerospace manufacturing would be seismic. And for economics, Joby’s estimate is $3 per passenger mile so (Joby’s numbers) an hour car ride condenses to 31 minutes and costs $90 to fly.

But the reason to be skeptical—well, there are many reasons—is potentially the same old mistake aviation entrepreneurs have always made: Unrealistic expectations of scale and demand and how fast either or both will develop. That said, in my lifetime, I have seen two examples of aviation democratization that actually succeeded, one that did for a brief shining moment and two that failed. All of them were buoyed by scale or torpedoed for the lack of it.

The first was Boeing’s bold 747 around 1970. With Pan Am as the launch customer in 1966, the airline suddenly had a lot of seats flying across the Atlantic and priced them accordingly. Zap! I was democratized when even as a broke college kid I could fly to Rome for $199. It turned me from a scruffy hippy into the sophisticated cognoscente I am today. Realized scale did that. Later in the same decade, it got even better.

On the general aviation front, the industry built nearly 18,000 airplanes in 1978. The market was awash in the damn things and an average Joe with a good income—auto workers in Detroit, for example—could afford to buy one, thanks to generous financing. A new 172 sold for $32,000, twice the mean income in 1978. (Now the multiplier is six times or 14 times if you fancy a Cirrus. Democratized? Not on your life.) For reasons yet to be understood, the market collapsed in 1980 and never much recovered. What scale was at work in 1978 was long gone and factory billings went up as fast as deliveries went south. Faster, actually. (To be fair, those economics prevailed through much of the period after World War II.)

Also in 1978, the airlines were deregulated, touching off a cascade of effects, not all of which were desirable. But thanks to new startups, bigger aircraft and aggressive marketing and competition, more seats than ever were available—scale again—and fares dropped. My $199 fare to Europe still stands in 2021 dollars and at times, it’s priced below that buying power. On the other hand, deregulation also gave us yield management pricing, hub-and-spoke, flying through Atlanta for every trip, Saturday stay overs, Roman slave galley seat pitch, unbundled fares and the specter of passengers attired in running shorts and flip flops assaulting flight attendants. But hey, everyone can play so it’s democratized!

The two spectacular failures came along more recently. How could we ever forget Eclipse? It was going to be everyman’s personal jet—the since-banished term was VLJ or very light jet—available to people heretofore slumming around in 210s or old Senecas with Piper’s tasty crushed velour livery.

What animated the nascent VLJ craze was revolutionary and cheap CNC machinery that would radically reduce production costs. You could see it clearly. Just plug the numbers into the spreadsheet and there it was. Unfortunately, spreadsheets appear not to work on production floors where mis-bucked rivets, sadly, still have be drilled out by hand and rubber mallets are used to adjust door fit.  

The Eclipse turned out to be what it always was: a $2 million plus nice little jet with short legs. What was supposed to sustain it—DayJet, an on-demand point-to-point air taxi service that’s ghostly similar to Joby’s plan—did not, even though the market survey said it would.

When Icon burst upon the scene in 2008 as a sexy, new-age easy-to-fly recreational aircraft, company founder Kirk Hawkins imagined the airplane would be irresistible, thus the business plan envisioned large volume and the production investment was scaled to suit. He too said the airplane was intended to democratize aviation. The high demand never materialized and/or it couldn’t be produced fast enough to keep costs from eating the business. Vision wasn’t the problem, the business plan was. Although the company survives, it does so on boutique volume at a price of nearly $400,000.

I cite these examples not in support of an argument that Joby can’t succeed because others have failed. I refuse to rank myself among knee-jerk bellyachers who still think those 1978 Skyhawks were the high-water mark just because we made a bunch of them. I believe the arc of progress bends forward. But cautionary tales are always valuable. Aviation business plans that live or die on gigantic numbers have tended more toward the latter than the former.  

*The YouTube dude with the supersonic baseball is engineer and science whiz Destin Wilson Sandlin. See how it works here.

Other AVwebflash Articles

38 COMMENTS

  1. “If my math is right, that would require about 85,000 aircraft, allowing for some spares. That’s more than four times the entire output of Boeing and Airbus for the past 20 years. Thought of in automotive terms, it’s not such a big number; Ford makes more than 900,000 F-150s a year. Scaled up to the full 1B, Joby would be building 10 times that number.”

    Uh, 10 times or one tenth?

    • 10 times a million is 10 million. 1000 times a million is a billion. And while we’re at it, a trillion is a million million. Which is just enough to pay for an annual on a Bonanza if you don’t need parts for the tail.

      Answering Skylor’s query above, it is 10X not one tenth. The cited example is Joby’s aspiration of flying a billion people per day. At 120 per aircraft per day, that would require north of 8 million units. I rounded up a little to allow for spares, so that’s 10 times the number of F-150s Ford makes now.

      Among other things, it’s a big parking problem.

      • We have parking for all those just in Houston!

        I’m not really exaggerating as much as you might think. I’m not going to try to justify his dream, but these mobility guys all seem to think that transportation as a service will greatly reduce the number of cars owned individually. They then have a belief that land use will very quickly change.

        If you ask me, the reason to dump your car is more about Amazon combined with the loss of unique local options for food and shopping than it is about Uber. We’ve dropped one car in favor of an electric bike, so maybe it’s possible to reduce cars.

        Big numbers make our minds numb. Perhaps that’s his intent, or maybe he made a mistake.

        What are the current Cirrus fleet hours? How many planes in that fleet? How many times does he have to outproduce them?

      • >a trillion is a million million. Which is just enough to pay for an annual on a Bonanza if you don’t need parts for the tail.

        I had previously thought it was safe to sneak read AvWeb at work, but this totally blindsided me. The surprise was complete and I exploded. Everybody at work heard me.

        Haven’t laughed like that since Calvin & Hobbes was in the comics section! Surely one of the better memes about the joys of keeping an airplane.

      • I would agree except that the big airline companies that have filed for bankruptcy are all still operating. Delta and old United filed once. Continental (who bought out the old United) filed at least twice that I know of. USAirways also filed several times before buying out American which also filed bankruptcy. Bankruptcy may be a good thing but abuse of the bankruptcy laws have resulted in the 3 consolidated big airlines we have to deal with now. Fortunately we have Southwest (who have never declared bankruptcy) to keep the others as honest as possible.

  2. Very well written. Having learned to fly in the 70’s I was spoiled with ramps cocked full of brand new Cessna, Pipers, and Grumman “personal fighters”. Today on the ramps are the ragged remnants of that glory age of making personal flying machines.

    Honestly, if you can’t even succeed these days making simple airplanes like we use to be knee deep in back in the 70’s then HOW will you make expensive complex designs with exotic materials cheap enough for working families?

  3. Let me share a little history of the mid 70’s:

    Paul’s Quote:”For reasons yet to be understood, the market collapsed in 1980 and never much recovered.”

    The Aircraft Manufacturing market was highly, maybe overly, tied into the cost of a loan. “Interest Rates”. With the onset of the mid 70’s radically high interest rates for a loan came the increasing higher rates for the insurers of a loan. Loan institutions ‘Must’ have security, they can not loan to an Aircraft that’s not insured. As the interest rate increased so did the insurance and as the insurance went up so did the interest rate to covered defaulted loans. A viscous circle or in today’s terms “A Bubble”. The Automotive industry has begun to experience the same thing over the past couple years.

    Joby needs to figure out their liability for producing a cutting edge technology Aircraft. A wiser JoeBen Bivert would enter the Air-Taxi business with a conventionally FAA approved aircraft that are available now and learn the ups, downs, ins and outs that come with public travel. Transporting people is not all about the machinery and everyone in the passenger travel business will confirm that.

    • yes, interest rates, combined with “1978, the airlines were deregulated, touching off a cascade of effects, not all of which were desirable. But… fares dropped. And then there was the 1979 oil crisis: Which drove the EPA to issue the 1st Autofuel STC in 1982. I personally do not remember insurance rates in those days, but my rudimentary understanding of finance is that high interest rates push insurance rates down. If rates went up at that time, it would most likely be due to expanded tort actions, and product liability, which was cited in Cessna’s piston production stop in 1986. “From 1976 to 1986, paid claims, defense costs, and expenses for three leading general aviation manufacturers rose from $24 million to $210 million a year” Put in perspective a new ’79 C172 cost $23K. It makes you wonder if Joby has an insurance binder in hand…

  4. I don’t know how many times I have heard some entrepreneur announce he has the “paradigm shift” technology that is going to disrupt the aviation status quo. Well I am still waiting…..

    The physics of flying are immutable and very resistant to revolutionary change. The fake it till you make it silicone valley model works for personal fulfilment apps but not surprisingly, doesn’t work in aviation because aviation is really hard. I rate the chance that I will be riding some overgrown drone ever, as so low as to be effectively zero.

  5. In the early ‘50s Igor Sikorsky was on the cover of LIFE magazine with a parked helicopter (A paper method of communicating) demonstrating another way to arrive at work! …. 70 years later
    Now we can expect to travel in PODs of FireFlies around cities like Manhattan while millions below use infrastructure to their actual destination.
    Projected Imagined Prices vs. Actual Price Factor; 4 to 10 times more.
    Thanks Paul

  6. Bertorelli may be almost old enough to remember geewhiz articles in the likes of Popular Science magazine claiming there’d be a helicopter in every home driveway long before now.

    Many readers are old enough to remember predictions of quantity of VLJs to go into service, some will remember the price escalation.

    Many people are suckers for hype, scary is they have a vote. Yes, that’s how ‘jefe’ Trudeau Jr. got elected as PM of Canada.

  7. Good write-up (as usual), but I had to search for the “asterisk” mention of Smarter Every Day (Destin’s youtube channel). Didn’t realize it was in the preview text of the blog. Maybe add that to the top of the blog entries too?

    As for Joby’s plans, I predict they’ll go the way of Icon: their product will become a reality, but not nearly at the scope they have plans for. Especially once people realize that spinning rotors to lift a vehicle in the air makes noise and wind, no matter how well-engineered they are. And if the general public doesn’t like airports and heliports next to them, they definitely aren’t going to like these things flying everywhere.

  8. The real difference between private and commercial flight cost… ability to protect themselves from law suits. They have deep pockets to pay legions of lawyers. Small aircraft manufacturers just can survive with the margins they were making.
    I remember when Cessna decided stop making planes that inexperienced pilots could crash. If your plane could be used for training… someone is likely going to crash it, and the family will sue.

    • Ayup, a company in the Seattle are got hit hard after it consolidated insurance policies of several divisions/subsidiaries into one.

      It then sold off an old product line that as on many old airplanes, new owners would have very shallow pockets.

  9. Anybody have any thoughts regarding a multitude of people taking to the the urban skies in aircraft that require very little training. Sounds either like a traffic management nightmare or a scene from the Jetsons. What if software managed traffic burps, kind of like autonomously driven cars do! My my…so glad to be aging and having had the priviledge of flying J-3’s, Champs, 208’s etc.

  10. All’s one has to do is look where Joby is HQ’ed … Santa Cruz, CA (That’s north of LaLaLand and Hollyweird). Then … the principals: “Founder/CEO: JoeBen Bevirt(Gorillapod creator); Executive Chairman: Paul Sciarra (Pinterest co-founder)”

    Skip the math … these people are not lucid and are basing projections on previous successes.

    • Yes, kind of like when JC Penny hired a CEO whose resume included setting up Apple’s brick & mortar stores. It didn’t take long to figure out that you don’t run a department store the way Apple runs its stores. JC Penny ran him off and has struggled ever since.

        • Which only accentuates the fact that management was not making rational business decisions. They were basing their decision on a business model that either didn’t apply or didn’t exist – kind of like Joby’s market projections.

          • I think saying they were not being rational is hyperbole, but I get your meaning. My point is that the department store business model isn’t doing well for most right now, and has not been for years.

            I don’t think trying something outside the box was a bad idea for Penny’s, though I cannot say what happened there. The new CEO might not have had the right skill set because of what you are saying, or maybe because he couldn’t get them all to truly change. It could have been them, not him. Either way, our culture seems to have decided, for better or worse, that people who are successful at one thing are the best bet for succeeding in similar things. Not all good bets payoff, so all failures are not caused by bad decisions.

            It’s not like they are really that worse off for trying, is it?

            As for the light aircraft industry, it’s not exactly booming either. One of the many reasons is that it’s managed to weed out most of the people open to innovation while failing to offer much interesting or new to attract modern customers.

            Not sure how many industries survive by offering essentially the same thing for over 50 years, yet a good portion of our little club seems to there’s never been anything better to attract new members than the 172.

            I’m not at all against calling out stupid marketing and similar hijinx, but it often gets taken to an extreme in aviation. Maybe Paul can write an article on all the people who openly predicted the failure of Cirrus. They’ve done really well, and imo, they started with a flawed product which is now merely mediocre in my opinion.

  11. ‘Anybody have any thoughts regarding a multitude of people taking to the the urban skies in aircraft that require very little training.’

    Yup, Japan. Whether travelling within a city or any part of the country modes like the Shinkansen bullet train at 200mph connects most major cities without a single injury or fatality in 50 years, to the urban trains running within one second on time schedule to busses, subways, ferries, taxies and bicycles all smoothly interconnected and efficient. And their essentially urban application could easily be expanded to different geography in most scenarios.

    Transportation Democratization at it’s best, without overhead, overgrown drones.

  12. Imagine a major city’s rush hour traffic, Now imagine all of those cars as UMVs each flying point to point. Our air space and air traffic systems could not handle it. The time saved by flying would be wasted waiting for a clearance. Then there would be the noise and “not in my neighborhood” complaints.

  13. Logical and engineering realities aside, I want to know who continues to finance these ventures. The sordid history of these hockey-stick business plans is so widespread that anyone with the Internet and Google can find out how many of these harebrained ideals actually succeeded and even were profitable (Google the Segway if you want an excellent example). Not than I’m against innovation, I just want some of that free money they’re passing out. I have an airplane I want to buy.

  14. “Joby proposes to do this with highly automated robotic factories and advanced manufacturing techniques.”
    Ask Tesla how well this went. They tried to eliminate the factory worker and wasted millions before giving up and realizing that people still do some things better than machines.

  15. These urban mobility in the skys plans could work, but probably not with democratic votes.
    What is envisaged for Charles de Gaulle / Paris, in time for the next olymics, no less, are “lanes in the sky” where they take off from an already almost decided site at the airport (not far from the TGV and regional trainstations) and follow fairly low, very strict corridors, and then land somewhere in or near Paris — the only heliport in Paris is in the process of being shut after nearby residents won many court cases — so it will not be there.
    And then fly back to CDG, using another, widely separated lane. Present proposal is a Km to the left and right of the motorway, but that might change as there are an awful lot of people who live and work there, and apart from the noise, hate the idea of people in aircraft looking down on them.
    The only way it will happen is through regional and national decrees — not votes in parliament.
    France, bless it, has a decree based system, along side the parliamentary law system — decrees get bundled up, sometimes years after being introduced and are voted on by parliament and if parliament rejects them the government falls, parliament dissolved and they all have to go campaigning, which is a hell of a bother.
    Ask the people and it will never get done.

  16. There are only two places on earth that I see this idea as a workable project; China and the Middle East. China, because traffic is horrendous around major cities and the communist government doesn’t depend on citizens voting for getting anything done. The Middle East, because very wealthy individuals don’t like surface travel that exposes them to the great unwashed. And, because they pretty much run the government and can afford the cost of these airborne toys. Elsewhere in the world like North America and Europe, voters will object to the noise and the general public just doesn’t like things flying over their heads.

  17. It’s funny how well Paul’s editorials – this one included – strike the perfect balance between the manufacturer’s hyperbolic claims and the peanut gallery’s bitter cynicism. Call it rational skepticism.

    I doubt Joby or any other company will be doing 1 billion daily flights any time soon, but I have to tip my hat to anyone in aviation who’s willing to take a chance and think big. As someone else posted, aviation is hard. That’s why it’s inspiring to see an individual or a company risk ruin and ridicule trying something new. UAM may never reach the grand vision Bivert espouses, but the effort by Joby and others will almost certainly lead to breakthroughs and improvements that make flying safer, quieter, less expensive, and more environmentally friendly.