The monster trade show for business jets, “NBAA” to most people (officially “NBAA-BACE”; NBAA is the name of the organization), recently concluded in Las Vegas. I was there, trick-or-treating the 1,100 exhibitor booths for items likely to delight the kids. (my photos)
Drones keep getting better while human pilots keep making mistakes. The only company that seems to be trying to bridge these two worlds of smart computers and dumb humans is the French company Dassault, which is trying to build an “autonomous co-pilot” (Flight Global). The most serious drone effort at the show was Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary. For about $1 million a border patrol post could get the ground equipment and three drones with basic cameras.
The F.A.A. was there at the show and seemed fully engaged in fighting the last war (e.g., avionics certification) rather than addressing the principal hazard: drone v. conventional aircraft collisions (a recent one in Canada; a turboprop rather than a turbojet and hence less likely to suffer an engine failure after a collision).
Although vendors of new aircraft were there, most of the show is about maintaining and operating existing planes. Honeywell’s forecast says that “stiff competition from the used-jet market, will restrain new aircraft deliveries.” What the vendors of new aircraft have going for them is the continuing decline in the skill level of the Americans willing to turn wrenches. Everyone involved in maintenance whom we talked to said that Americans coming to classes get less intelligent and less diligent every year. In theory a 20- or even 40-year-old plane can do every mission that a typical new airplane can, but in practice there are fewer and fewer shops with the capacity to keep an old plane airworthy. “In the 1970s if you needed an aircraft to operate reliably in Africa or Latin America you would have to send a new one,” said one expert, “because they didn’t have the supply chain and technical capabilities to ensure a high dispatch rate on an old plane. The U.S. is the new Africa.”
As in 2015 (my report), in-flight Internet connectivity was a big story. ViaSat, which enables the magic of JetBlue’s FlyFi, was there showing off their improved coverage. Due to more satellites being launched, it should be possible to get JetBlue-style connectivity all the way across the North Atlantic right now and, within a few years, nearly worldwide (you’ll need Iridium for the poles, though). Land-based systems aren’t necessarily finished, however. SmartSky is a startup building its own system of 4G LTE towers across North America ($250 million in funding). Planes above 10,000′ should be able to get high-speed data service for cheaper rates than offered by the satellite operators, though if you’ve been complaining about Verizon’s rates you might not like SmartSky’s “basic” subscription at $2,500 per month for 5 GB data. Note that Gogo already uses some ground-based towers. New Zealand-based Tracplus was there at the opposite end of the rate spectrum. For less than $100 per month they will send position reports and arbitrary text messages out of an aircraft via the cell network or, if unavailable, via Iridium.
As in 2015, the show was festooned with banners quoting famous people opposed to privatization of the U.S. Air Traffic Control system. Ownership of the right to authorize flight through clouds and flight above 18,000′ is hugely valuable. There is no way to operate a jet-powered aircraft efficiently without an ATC clearance to climb above 18,000′. Any organization that can get hold of this right should be able to exclude competition, extract trillions of dollars in profits over the years, etc. The labor union representing air traffic controllers and the airlines are passionate about capturing control over this currently-public resource and, as with most crony capitalist situations, it seems inevitable that they will get it one day. The issue is complex and the opposition is diffuse.
[That this grab for privatization won’t go away calls into question the assumption that rich people control American politics. The truly rich don’t work as air traffic controllers and don’t fly on airlines. Why would they want the ATC union and airlines setting prices for them to operate their Gulfstream G450s?]
Government regulation continues to help the big get bigger. A charter operator said that he couldn’t imagine being competitive with fewer than 30 jets over which to spread the cost of complying with the latest regulations and data submission requirements. One new task is submitting literally thousands of data points regarding usage every month. This pins down a human at a web browser for days. Complying with regulations around supplying fuel is also becoming more challenging, thus leading to consolidation in the FBO market. Signature, a division of BBA Aviation plc, for example, has more than 200 locations. (see my photos for a selfie with the president and COO of this multi-billion dollar enterprise)
Regulation and government involvement keeps competition to a minimum. The same charter operator says that he thinks his will be the last company in his region to be approved for a certificate. U.S. airports are typically owned by cities or counties. Thus the existing FBOs can and do invest in lobbying politicians in order to prevent new FBOs from being established (we heard a story of more than $2 million spent on lobbying in order to obstruct a competitor, which had been approved by the airport management).
Stratos flew its prototype single-engine jet to KLAS and then taxied it down the street into the convention center. This design uses one of the engines from an Embraer Phenom 300 to power a plane up to FL410 and a 400-knot cruise speed. The design team is small and candid. They admit that controlling interior noise is a big challenge, though made somewhat easier by having all of the pieces that make noise in a separate space frame attached at the back of the cabin. If they get $200 million in financing (who wants to write the first check?), they hope to achieve FAA certification within 3-4 years.
Unlike in 2015, ICON was not there. I talked to a guy who went through ICON’s amphibious seaplane training in California and he spoke highly of the program and also the aircraft. Right now the company’s site says that they have delivered 19 out of 1800 aircraft ordered and that they started in July 2015. At this rate it will take them only a little over 200 years to work through the order book!
Aerion had a beautiful booth and an inspiring model of a supersonic vehicle for global douchebags who need to make it from TED to Davos and back to Aspen. Back in 2015 they were talking about a first flight in 2019 and certification in 2021. Now the plane will fly in 2023 and deliveries will happen in 2025. Progress since the last show: a partnership with GE to try to adapt and existing GE turbojet engine for supersonic flight. Aerion’s chairman is Robert Bass and the company doesn’t seem to be looking for financing.
XTIAircraft, by contrast, had big video screens soliciting investors. They had brought a mock-up of their TriFan 600 concept and were promising the world: three ducted fans; single-pilot IFR, advanced avionics, carbon fiber and epoxy structure, sliding door conceals third fan for forward flight, hybrid electric propulsion. There is a Cirrus-style airframe parachute. This $6.5 million VTOL machine will take six people “as high above weather, and as far as traditional business jets” (then the brochure says 660 statute mile range and 29,000′ ceiling, so this would be like a regular business jet after an engine failure and a fuel leak?). The chief engineer is George Bye, who is also promising electric airplanes with 4X the range that anyone else can deliver (while using the same Samsung batteries!). Power comes from a Honeywell HTS900 helicopter turboshaft engine, an evolution of a 1960 Lycoming design. Unlike a helicopter, in which there is one driveshaft that can fail, the TriFan 600 will have three driveshafts that are potential failure points.
Mitsubishi was there to remind people what real commitment to customers looks like. The last MU-2 was built 31 years ago. Owners rave about Mitsubishi and, in surveys, their support is rated far above any other turbine aircraft manufacturer, including Gulfstream, et al. Mitsubishi’s latest retrofit improvement is stronger acrylic windows. Costs for precision manufacturing in Japan should be lower than in Europe or the U.S. Why can’t Mitsubishi come back into the G.A. market?
Jetpedic was there with a comfortable foam mattress system ($6000+ and about 50 lbs.) to spread across two seats. For relaxing back on the ground, all of the major manufacturers of massage chairs were at the show. The folks from New Hampshire-based Infinity told me that everything is made in China now, even if the brand name is Japanese.
For those who missed high school chemistry, Rhode Island-based Tanury was running a six-bath electroplating demonstration at the show. If you’ve ever wanted to live a gold-plated lifestyle, this was inspiring.
To a first approximation, the farther that people in this industry get from actually flying or producing airframes, the more money they make and the less risk that they take. Walking the trade show floor is an education in just how many enterprises are involved every time an aircraft departs. There are companies making money planning flights, training crew, finding crew, pumping fuel, tracking maintenance, making components that wear out, overhauling parts, etc.
Speaking of money, at the 2015 show an attendee commented “Wherever jets are parked there will be [family court plaintiffs].” My badge sparked some conversations about Real World Divorce, and it turned out that attendees’ experiences tracked the prevailing family law in their respective jurisdictions. An attendee who had money and lived in a jurisdiction where divorce and/or collecting child support was lucrative was unlikely to be married to a first spouse. Europeans (except the British), Texans, and Nevadans tended to be married; Californians with money could not stay married, indicating a full transition to serial polygamy for high-income men. As in 2015, the harshest attitudes were from new (female) partners who referred to plaintiff women with terms such as “gold digger,” “greedy cunt,” “lazy bitch” (for women whose alimony and/or child support profits enabled them to retire from the workforce and/or work only part-time), etc. Do they say this in front of the stepchildren? “There is one rule in our house for the steps. They are not to mention their whore of a mother for any reason or at any time. That keeps conversations civil.”
Regarding the alternative of earning money via a W-2 job… there was a lot of talk about the challenge of recruiting and retaining qualified personnel. The airlines are ferocious competitors for pilots and mechanics. The market is global so that U.S. general aviation companies now face competition from foreign airlines as well, i.e., when airlines in China, India, and the Middle East expand the result is a tougher market for U.S. employers.
Aviation regulation tends to be nonpartisan. However, show attendees were generally happy to see Donald Trump in the White House. “It is almost impossible to operate a medium-sized business in the U.S.,” said one attendee. “I’m not sure Trump will make this easier, but Hillary was trying to make it a lot worse.”
Bottom line: Traditional aviation is progressing, but so slowly that if progress in the drone world continues at the current rate there will be massive unemployment and parked legacy aircraft.
- RC car racing at the Westgate adjacent to the convention center (not something we expected to see in a hotel meeting room!)