What do you consider an airliner? For most people it’s a flying metallic tube that takes you from point A to point B with the help of wings, engines, and a touch of magic. For me, it’s a lifelong passion. I can spot the subtle differences between aircraft and yet I can still see how similar they all are. But why are they all so similar? The 5 following points will try to explain why.
A shape with few compromises
To understand why all aircraft, fall under this same aesthetic we’ll have to turn back the clocks to the Second World War. Back in that day, commercial aviation didn’t really exist as it does today. Aircraft were used for mail, reconnaissance and as bombers and troupe transporters in war time.
A recent innovation was the jet engine, developed by the British and Germans for military aircraft during the war. But once the war ended the factories responsible for their production had two options: go bankrupt or innovate.
It was after countless iterations that the British engineers of De Havilland agreed on the shape of the Comet, the first jet propelled aircraft designed solely for commercial use by airlines. As any first-generation design though, it had its flaws. But these were later improved upon by Boeing with the introduction of the 707.
And so, since the Comet first took flight, the general idea in aviation has just been to improve upon the previous generation of aircraft through incremental updates to improve on efficiency and safety. Even the commercial planes of today can be considered as the direct descendants of this 70-year-old design. It is a shape that has stood the test of time for its safety, but that is also starting to reach its limit in efficiency.
To understand the current state of stagnating innovation in the industry, the duopoly formed by Airbus and Boeing must be considered. They together are responsible for the production of 80% of new airliners in the world.
Airbus couldn’t exist without Boeing and the reverse is also true. Their interdependence makes it so that today, they aren’t motivated to make tough calls and risky products to beat out the competition. But rather to periodically refresh and improve upon their previous designs.
Safety: The number one priority
This idea of incremental improvements comes not only from a want to reduce costs but also from an ever-growing priority in the sector: safety.
It seems almost intuitive that it would be more logical to build upon a design that has already proven its safety through time, rather than going back to the drawing board and design a brand-new aircraft. This principle is what gave birth to Airbus’ neo program and Boeing’s 777X and 737MAX aircraft.
But the aforementioned example also shows that improving on previous designs isn’t always the solution. The general airframe of the 737 dates back to the 1960s. And it was perhaps by wanting to add new technologies to this over 50-year-old design, that Boeing might have made mistakes that lead to serious incidents.
Sometimes it is necessary to completely change the design of an aircraft, but this is a risk that the industry giants that currently have the monopoly of the market don't always want to take.
It cannot be said however, that the commercial aviation industry lacked innovation in the past. The Concorde and its soviet (Tupolev Tu-144) and American (Boeing 2707) counterparts that never truly saw the light of day, do show however that innovation is possible. These first ever commercial supersonic jets had to have a very specifically engineered shape to withstand supersonic speeds. These innovations were justified by the Cold War of course, that proved to be a catalyst for development in various sectors.
But you don’t have to go back as far as that to find uncommon aircraft designs. In the 1970s, multiple aircraft manufacturers chose to include a third engine on the tail of the aircraft. Long haul planes like the MD-11 and L-1011 Tristar included these engines to work around laws that prohibited transatlantic crossings for aircraft with two jets. But these designs soon became obsolete as engines became more reliable and laws were relaxed.
On short haul planes, rear-mounted engines persisted slightly longer though and can still be seen on many private jets. But there are less and less of these today as well, as moving them below the wings not only facilitates maintenance but also places them closer to the fuel tanks and improves their safety.
It can therefore be said that true innovation in aviation is often observed when there are constraints placed on the manufacturers, either by laws they need to work around or by governments attempting to prove their countries’ worth to the international community. Sadly though, due to the absence of regulatory or geopolitical motivators nowadays, most say the aviation industry has fallen into this slightly stagnant period of innovation.
An ambitious but uncertain future
Innovation and creativity always prevail however, and nothing illustrates this better than the numerous concept aircraft that have popped up in the past few years. Startups like BOOM as well as major players like Airbus and NASA are breaking free of the mold and coming out with their visions of the aircraft of tomorrow. Some imitate birds and their millions of years of evolution while others like the “blended wing” design take the theoretically most aerodynamic shape for an aircraft to build their concept around.
The fact that all aircraft look the same doesn’t mean that innovation has disappeared but rather that it’s on a short break due to the current state of the world. You can’t see into the future so there is no way of knowing if the concepts of today will ever take flight. But one thing is certain, if change is what we want, airlines need to go to the manufacturers and ask for the aircraft that us future customers will want to fly on.