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A Cloudy Crystal Ball

A real history of the type Heppenheimer has purported to write would have included a comparative summary of the growth of major international flag carriers such as Air France, Lufthansa, and BOAC, whose Comet was in 1952 the first jet airliner to enter service, and whose descendant, British Airways, now owns 25 percent of USAir. The former Soviet Union’s achievements in commercial aviation also deserve a mention-for example, Aeroflot was at one time the world’s largest airline and the first to fly a supersonic airliner, its Tu-144 lifting off two months before the British/French Concorde.

Heppenheimer never talks about the explosion of air travel markets in the Pacific Rim, or the proliferation of start-up airlines in such new centers of tourism and expanding industry as Africa, West Asia, and Australia. We read of rapid postwar growth problems in U.S. air travel but nothing of the difficulties Europe has faced because of rigid ticket pricing, bad weather, and crowded skies. And except for a brief account of the founding of Federal Express, Turbulent Skies fails to discuss the world’s booming air freight industry.

The worldwide transition from piston to turbojet engines is similarly conspicuous by its absence. During the period when jet engines were not powerful, reliable, or fuel-efficient enough for commercial use, the industry employed turboprops, a technology in which smaller jet engines drive propellers. The result was airliners that were faster than prop aircraft yet more fuel-efficient than military jets. But Lockheed’s turboprop Electra is barely mentioned, even though 127 Electras flew with six major U.S. carriers, as did 88 British Viscount turboprops, which also served in many other airlines throughout the world. In fact, numerous turboprop designs still ply shorter routes in exWarsaw Pact countries, and cost-effective turboprop twins now dominate the U.S. “feederline” markets that connect smaller airports with major airlines’s hub cities.

Finally, Heppenheimer projects that, worldwide, airlines will be placing orders for almost $1 trillion in new aircraft over the next 15 years, but he neglects to mention how the growing viciousness of global competition has forced U.S. companies to team up with foreign manufacturers. For example, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing have forged subcontracting arrangements with China and Japan in the scramble for crucial Pacific Rim orders. And GE has joined with SNECMA, France’s engine manufacturing giant, to produce the CFM-56 turbofans on late-model Boeing 737s, as well as larger derivatives used by other aircraft around the world.

Yet despite all that is missing from Turbulent Skies, Heppenheimer’s closing account captures some of the intertwined swirls of excitement and anxiety that cloud the crystal balls of airline forecasters. Yes, annual industry revenues now exceed $200 billion worldwide. Yes, still-rising passenger demand and the vast distances of an expanding Pacific Rim market may well prompt the launch of an 800-passenger jetliner as well as a second-generation supersonic transport that is bigger, more environmentally friendly, and more profitable than the Concorde. But even so, unprecedented development costs will impose tremendous financial risks. Who will get the orders-Boeing, Airbus, a multi-company U.S. team, or an expanded European consortium that includes Russia’s Tupolev or Antonov design bureaus? Will they drive one another into bankruptcy?

To complicate matters further, we are now witnessing the beginnings of airline deregulation in the countries of the European Union. Will the outcome echo the chaos the U.S. industry experienced in 1978? And on the other side of the world, what impact will recurring political disagreements with China and trade rivalries with Japan have on aircraft orders from those two regions-or on the flow of their jetliner subassemblies to U.S.-based manufacturers? The outlook is not optimal-not what fighter pilots once called CAVU: ceiling and visibility unlimited. Thunderheads of uncertainty mass on the horizon. The seat belt sign may be off for now, but it may not be long before it goes back on again.

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