Industries in Depth

Concorde is a reminder that the only way for innovation is up

The final British Airways passenger Concorde flight lands at London's Heathrow airport in 2003.

The final British Airways passenger Concorde flight lands at London's Heathrow airport in 2003.

Simon Freakley
Chief Executive Officer, AlixPartners
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I do not think I have ever met a child who is not fascinated with flying. When an airplane passes overhead and my own children look up at the sky, I can remember how I was also captivated as a boy at the wonder of flight.

My children are too young to ever have known Concorde, the British-French supersonic airliner that had its inaugural test flight 50 years ago this March. But I remember it vividly. More than a super-fast vehicle for carrying passengers over the Atlantic (in only three and a half hours), it was a symbol of vision, ambition and possibility. It represented optimism, national pride for Britain and France and a technological achievement that somehow felt within reach to many, regardless of whether they would ever fly that aluminum cigar tube in the sky.

For me, Concorde represents an example of a belief I hold dear: great things are achieved by looking up. One of my earliest memories was being in my grandmother’s sitting room watching the moon landing on television. I remember how absolutely enthralled I was, as were so many people around the world. Why? There is something about having a really audacious goal and being able to achieve it, and what that says about humankind’s ability to innovate and imagine.

I’m reminded of the Mayans who built geometric pools so they could study the stars by their reflection, the shapes aiding in their calculations. And Copernicus and Galileo, who sought to understand the universe, and took great risks in challenging the status quo of their time.

It is extremely exciting when something otherworldly is imagined. And then, when it is ultimately realized, the mere fact of its achievement has the power to ignite our spirits and unite us in hope, as we consider what else can be accomplished if only we dared to be so bold.

I was fortunate enough to fly on board Concorde and have many fond memories of the experience. The one that stands out above all else is how when looking out of the window, you were at such a high altitude that you could see the curvature of the earth. Try explaining this to a teenager; if they put their phone down for a moment, they might find themselves astonished not only that this was once possible, but also by the fact that technology in this area, commercially at least, seems to have gone backwards. Perhaps the Concorde was just ahead of its time.

As I write this, the aerospace industry continues to captivate. In July, for example, Boeing revealed plans for a hypersonic passenger plane that would cruise 30,000ft higher than the Concorde and at five times the speed of sound. According to a study conducted by the AlixPartners Aerospace & Defense team, the commercial aerospace industry is booming, supported by a 4% yearly traffic increase and especially strong growth of the Asian markets – now 40% of the backlog in commercial jets.

2017 aviation industry overview Image: AlixPartners, SIPRI Milex, IATA, GAMA, SIA, Space Launch Report

Also of note, our study shows that while Boeing and Airbus busily increase production of these commercial aircrafts, they are investing in electrical aircraft, the next frontier in airline innovation. This transition began with adding more electrical power for all the non-propulsion systems (for example as with the A321 or B787) and will ultimately move to fully electrically powered aircrafts. While I envision my children traveling on these in the future, we can see today an immediate surge of new projects and start-ups focusing on electrical aircraft for air mobility vehicles and small jets.

No doubt some newcomers will disrupt the market and accelerate innovations. Even defense is moving to more electrical aircrafts, the F35 latest-generation fighter being a perfect example. According to our study, the space industry continues to grow amid disruption and competitive pressure.

Have you read?

SpaceX drastically changed the rules of the game, cutting the cost of launch by more than 50%. But it is also true with satellites, where the industry is moving away from $100m units to ones which are 10 times cheaper, in mass production, as with the new OneWeb plant in Florida. This has left satellite operators scrambling to reinvent a new business model.

At a time when so many of us – children included – spend so much time with our heads down, it’s worth remembering to look up and take inspiration again from the skies. Go ahead, do it now. Who knows where it will lead us?

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