BlueSky Business Aviation News
Limiting Innovation Terry Drinkard

urely, we have all heard the expression, “The elephant in the living room.” It means a truth that is obvious, but ignored, or at least unaddressed. That is the situation today with the lack of innovation in business aviation.

The industry is pretty stagnant, and yet we all pretend otherwise. Perhaps Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” might better describe the situation. We have imposed limits on innovation in our industry, but people don’t like to talk about it.

Business aviation faces a number of challenges, currently: How to reduce our carbon footprint, expand our services to a new part of the market (the air taxi issue), cope with an increasingly global industry, and improve safety while efficiently and effectively regulating the industry, while still making a profit.

Let me back up just a bit. The fuel burn issue that gets discussed a great deal is part of the larger carbon footprint issue. The less petroleum-based fuel we burn, the smaller our carbon footprint, obviously. There is also a carbon footprint associated with the materials and processes used to construct an airplane. Aluminum is very energy intensive to smelt and otherwise process into finished sheet metal. Quite possibly the best alternative to aluminum is a return to wood and wood-based structures, but neither Airbus nor Boeing will lead the charge there. Nor, for that matter, will Gulfstream, Hawker Beechcraft, or Cessna. Someone should. There is money to be made here, but where will the money to do the basic research come from?

Cost of certifying new materials

The cost of certification is a part of the overall cost basis of any technology. For example, we have been building aircraft out of aluminum for more than eighty years now. The regulators have an excellent understanding of aluminum structure. As a result, the cost to certify a new airplane, or at least the part attributable to assessing and understanding the aluminum technology (nearly impossible to separate out in reality, but this is a thought experiment), is very small. Compare that to the cost of certifying a new composite aircraft. Make it more challenging; assume it's a new sort of composite that no one has used before, not even the military. The total cost would be huge as all manner of supporting data would have to be generated before any sane regulator would be comfortable saying, "Yes, this is safe." The cost is inversely proportional to the knowledge base of the regulator, which is to say that as regulators know more, the cost comes down. So, technically skilled and knowledgeable regulators can have a significant impact on the cost of introducing new and innovative technologies.

Who doesn’t do research - everyone

Aviation is the stepchild of government. For our entire history, the advancement of aviation as an industry has depended extensively on government spending and government regulation. The NACA (and the BACA) have long since been disbanded, the US space folks at NASA do very little for aviation, and the FAA will tell you (quite properly) they are not a research institution. With little public money being spent on basic research, it is up to the individual companies to fund their own research. Their natural tendency is to spend as little as possible and make the results of that research proprietary so that their competitors do not benefit from their efforts, which makes it all but impossible for regulators as a group to stay in touch with the cutting edge of aviation R&D, even if we had a large group of technical regulators, which we don’t.

Certifying ourselves

With the exclusion of regulators from the R&D process, airframers and engine manufacturers have to take on more and more of the responsibility of certifying the design as safe through the DER program initially, and now the ODA program. This becomes a real issue with the obvious conflicts of interest. The only thing that has prevented a disastrous mistake is the character of the people involved. This will change as it inevitably must because of the differences in sources of motivation. This is fundamental agency theory. Probably the worst possible scenario is one where someone makes a perfectly understandable regulatory mistake (approving a defective design, for example), but since they get paid by the manufacturer rather than the regulator, any accidents resulting from or related to that mistake will create a firestorm of lawsuits and bad publicity, potentially shaking the public’s trust in aviation as a safe means of transportation.

What are we missing?

There is another interesting question. Are we missing out on potentially important technical innovations due to a lack of regulator involvement? Maybe. It is impossible to know because it is impossible to know what technologies various airframers and engine makers are looking at, and we can't know that because their research tends to be proprietary because they are investing their own money, rather than assessing open research funded by the government or an industry think tank.

The regulatory risk

What we can say is that research performed without understanding the regulatory risk is potentially wasted money. If we can't certify it, there is no reason for a company to pursue the research. If we don't understand the costs related to showing the innovation to be safe, again, there is not much point in pursuing it. In short, a company could bankrupt itself pursuing a technology that it cannot certify. The flip side to that is companies refusing to take any risks at all, foregoing any sort of innovation that may pose a regulatory risk. We cannot progress without taking risks.

Is business aviation ready for the new fuels?

Directly related to the upcoming change in type of fuel, from petroleum based to some other sustainable base, be it alcohol or bio-diesel or hydrogen or whatever, I have personally participated in studies to understand the impact of the fuel change on the aircraft configuration. Boeing and Airbus are already working on that, but I don’t know about the business aviation airframers. When I asked, I got a blank stare. Maybe they just didn’t want to say for fear their competitors would hear about it; I don’t know.

The existing system

Boeing and Airbus are large corporation with enormous investments in the existing industry structure. They are perfectly willing to change as rapidly as the rest of the system will allow them to change. But, they will not - cannot - go out of their way to drive that change suddenly in a new direction, much as they might like to; look at the problems they are encountering forging ahead with the composite technologies of twenty years ago. There are too many pieces to their puzzle and their system is optimized to produce existing designs, not generate entirely new, paradigm-breaking technologies. Boeing and Airbus are very good at what they do, but the sorts of things we are discussing here will not come from them. 

My concern isn't directed at the Airbus and Boeing corporations. They will do fine, no matter what as they are so large that governments have to take them into account when they regulate and the duopoly commands huge resources in an industry with enormous barriers to entry. It would take a nation state like China or India to displace them in any meaningful way.

Instead, my focus is on business aviation. Compared to the defense and commercial airliner industries, we in business aviation have a much smaller total industry R&D budget sliced up among many different companies, no significant public research, and no business aviation think tank to focus what research we do get; the obvious and inescapable conclusion is that innovation must all but halt, and that is pretty much what we see - a stagnant industry. Fine companies like Hawker Beechcraft, Cessna, Gulfstream, and the upstarts like Eclipse and Stratos, etc. are much smaller than Airbus or Boeing with commensurately smaller resources, even the ones owned by defense contractors. But the upstarts, who are our only hope for breakthrough innovation, have relatively tiny R&D budgets and very little publicly funded research to build upon.


A stagnant industry does not innovate much as there is no advantage accruing to the investment. Business aviation is pretty stagnant. There is little in the way of innovation currently, and that is at the margins; most airframers don't see a need for more. Moreover, without a source of publicly funded research, there is little that can be done to drive innovation externally. The market is ripe for an innovative new company that can deliver a green, low-cost, safe and easy to fly business jet, especially if that aircraft is matched to a solid air taxi business model. But, how will we pay for the research to make it a reality? Who can competently certify it?

We as an industry should reconsider the limitations on innovation that we have imposed on ourselves by the very structure of our industry. More publicly funded research, a business aviation oriented think tank, and technically astute regulators would enable us as an industry to break through the current limits on innovation, putting us in the twenty-first century, where we belong.

Terry Drinkard is a Contract Structural Engineer based in Jacksonville, Florida whose interests and desire are being involved in cool developments around airplanes and in the aviation industry. He has held senior positions with Boeing and Gulfstream Aerospace and has years of experience at MROs designing structural repairs. Terry’s areas of specialty are aircraft design, development, manufacturing, maintenance, and modification; lean manufacturing; Six-sigma; worker-directed teams; project management; organization development and start-ups. 

Terry welcomes your comments, questions or feedback. You may contact him via

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©BlueSky Business Aviation News |17th February 2011 | Issue #113
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