Back to the future—a reassessment

Forecasts change constantly as conditions evolve.

As unemployment lines shrink, business aviation should take off—but the next boom may be 5 years or more into the future.

And in the stock market, the Standard & Poors index has recovered more than 500 points since its Mar 2009 low, and the modest 6-week dip after the Greek debt crisis broke is clearly past. By mid-June, the market had already made up more than 1/3 of its recent loss. The one weak point in the economy is job growth.

There isn’t much. The US needs well above 100,000 new jobs each month just to absorb new workers coming into the labor force—and it is not creating them. Unemployment fell from 9.9% in April to 9.7% in May, but nearly half the unemployed had been out of work for 6 months or more and some 17% of workers either have part-time jobs and want work full-time or have given up the job search altogether.

Payrolls expanded by 431,000 in May, but only 20,000 of those new jobs represented long-term private employment. The rest were temporary workers hired by the government for the 2010 census. All this sends mixed signals for corporate aviation. We still see little prospect of a 2nd major dip in the global economy, and we further believe that the economies of the world’s major trading nations will continue to grow strongly.

This includes the US. And the chances of another decline so sharp that some companies actually cut their flight hours are slim to nonexistent. Yet there will be no economic boom of the kind that could easily follow a burst of new hiring.

So plan for more flying as companies scramble to win or keep every possible customer, and probably to a wider variety of destinations as the growth of global trade continues to knit world economies ever closer together. This view fits well with the prediction from TechCast, a forecasting operation run by William Halal, a professor at George Washington University.

TechCast operates by scanning background trends and then polling 100 experts worldwide to determine their implications. “Our data suggest the next economic boom is likely to start about 2015 as green technologies and global e-commerce take off. Developing nations that are already booming (China, India, Brazil etc) may continue to grow robustly in the meantime, but the developed world (US, EU, Japan etc) is likely to slog through the Great Recession with uncertainty until the next upcycle begins about 2015.”

Murray Smith, this magazine’s publisher, sums it up. “We all know what keeps airplanes flying,” he says. “It isn’t aerodynamics. It’s money. Even in a down economy, corporate aviation more than earns its own way.

In a world of global partnerships, flying executives where they need to go, when they need to get there, on corporate aircraft remains the most productive way to make sales and manage outlying divisions. It takes extraordinarily bad times to reduce corporate flight hours, and they’re not likely to return soon.

“In the economy we see ahead, flight hours will continue to grow. So will the demand for corporate pilots and aircraft. Flight departments will have to operate as leanly and efficiently as they can, thanks to the lessons in austerity the recent recession taught their corporate owners. But they’ll be flying high for as long as people in distant locations need to meet in person.”

Toy story

Everything old is new again, at least when it comes to DARPA’s readiness to tackle the really exciting challenges that lie just beyond technology’s cutting edge. And that’s a good thing. Dugan is moving DARPA away from its recent focus on delivering widgets to the field and back to its traditional role as the military answer to Geppetto’s workshop.

Some military toys with civilian applications are already in the works. There are unmanned airships the size of 15-story buildings that will be as suitable for carrying civilian cargo as they are for toting military surveillance radar. Powered exoskeletons that one day could help ground personnel shift cargo or lift engines and other heavy aircraft components.

Adjustable rotor systems that almost surely will soon allow civilian helicopters to go faster, further, with less noise, while sipping less fuel. Synthetic fuel equivalent to JP8 that should eventually cut the dependence of civilian and military fleets alike on foreign oil. And, of course, the Transformer, DARPA’s future aerial jeep, destined to spin off generations of flying cars for tomorrow’s long-distance travelers.

Air and space

Contact lens with electronic circuits is a prototype of tomorrow’s personal HUD worn on the eye—future technology that will transform avionics.

Until 1958, NASA had nothing to do with putting human beings into orbit. Half a century later, this will soon be true again. Not that NASA is reverting to its days as the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.

But when the Endeavor flies the space shuttle’s 134th mission, now scheduled for mid-November, the agency will officially leave the transportation business to private industry and the space agencies of Russia and other former competitors. Instead, it will focus on more distant research missions.

Exactly what missions they will be has yet to be determined. The Constellation program, which planned to return to the Moon by 2020, will not be among them. It is officially dead. All this, of course, is old news. The Obama administration announced the death of US manned spaceflight as we’ve known it last January.

And although many have protested the decision, particularly senators and congressmen with major spaceflight centers in their districts, there is no sign that the administration will back down. There is nothing to suggest that this change will return aviation to its former prominence in NASA’s programs.

The budget announced in January gives NASA an extra $6 billion over its former budget—pending Congres­sional approval—but exactly what that money will be used for was not spelled out. And yet, one proposal included in the budget directs the agency to “increase research activities into green aviation and [NextGen] capabilities.”

These are worthwhile steps forward. Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA Langley Research Center, commented recently, ”Civilian aeronautics is in a mess. The ATC system is antiquated and incapable of being ‘fixed’ sufficiently to enable [advances] such as UAS/UAVs in controlled airspace and the potential $1 trillion-per-year worldwide market in PAVE [personal air vehicles.] The airlines are not making much profit, and the emerging teletravel revolution is reducing business travel—the source of whatever profits they can hope for.

The climate folks are zeroing in on aircraft emissions of all flavors—CO2, NOx and water.” Unmanned aircraft such as the Predator are a pressing priority at FAA. “There is a tremendous pressure and need to fly unmanned aircraft in (civilian) airspace,” Hank Krakowski, head of air traffic operations at FAA, said in a recent meeting with European aviation officials.

“We are having constant conversations and discussions, particularly with the Dept of Defense and the Dept of Homeland Security, to figure out how we can do this safely with all these different sizes of vehicles.” FAA has been trying to develop a program to integrate UAVs into civilian airspace since 2006.

Last year, it promised defense officials that it would come up with a plan in 2010. As things stand, US airspace may not truly be ready for the coming of drone aircraft until the GPS-based NextGen ATC is ready for use around 2025. One cautionary note about NextGen merits attention.


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