Bombardier announced today that its Learjet operations will close later this year, ending an era in aviation that began in 1964 with the delivery of the world’s first business jet. The Learjet 23, with its unique shape, became an icon of the industry, and the nameplate that honored the inventor of the business jet will be missed.
Most aircraft programs tend to have a long life cycle as aircraft tend to be continually improved over many years of production. New engines, new avionics, stretched airframes, and other improvements have kept many aircraft competitive for many years. Totally new platforms, rather than derivative models, have been rare events.
Whether commercial, business or general aviation, aircraft life cycles have grown longer as the risks of investing in new programs become “bet the company” events. For example, Textron’s Beechcraft lineup has the Bonanza introduced in 1947, the Baron introduced in 1961, and the King Air introduced in 1964. While each has seen multiple upgrades, including an upgraded King Air model introduced this year with additional improvements, the basic designs are now 57, 60, and 74 years old. Strong aircraft programs can last a long time.
The Boeing 737 was introduced in 1967 and is 54 years old. Even the newer Airbus A320 was introduced 32 years ago. Given that new aircraft being produced this year will still be in service 25 years from now, we can expect the 737 to still be flying 80 years after the first model was introduced.
Obsolescence is no longer technical, but economic
An aircraft program can be updated and modernized with current engines, avionics, and systems and perform nearly as well as new models, with already amortized development costs. It takes a lot for an aircraft to no longer be competitive. In the case of the Learjet, the need for two pilots rather than one required a major upgrade to the avionics suite, which was not in the cards economically. With the market moving to single-pilot operations for owner-flown aircraft, newer competitors like the Embraer Phenom took market leadership in the light jet sector.
There are a number of older designs in the marketplace that have been tweaked, stretched, re-engined, and improved over the years. From the largest Gulfstream models to the smallest Cessna aircraft, continuous improvement has enabled many designs to continue in production for a half-century or more.
New models generate increases in demand as they typically reflect product improvements that help performance and economics. Typically, an aircraft will undergo two or three stretches and a re-engining or two during a 50 plus year life cycle as technologies change.
The future is beginning to change
Environmental requirements and revolutionary propulsion technologies could be disruptive for legacy programs over the next two decades. We’re already beginning to see the impact of electric propulsion for training aircraft, with Pipistrel offering the first electric aircraft and Bye aircraft well into testing. That will obsolete existing trainers, as operating costs will be a fraction of conventionally powered aircraft for fuel and engine maintenance. This revolutionary change has begun at the low end of the market and will be moving upward. While we will not likely see an all-electric business jet or hydrogen fuel cell hybrid within five years, we could within 20 years.
We expect that business turboprops will be the first in the business aircraft sector impacted by technological change and electrification, either partially in as hybrids or fully electric as battery technology advances at rapid rates.
Knowing that major changes will be happening between now and 2040 in terms of propulsion technologies, are the 2020s the time to be launching new programs that could become economically obsolete in 2035-2040? The days of the 50-year program may be numbered because of propulsion technology changes. No longer will designers need to be tailored to turboprop or turbofan engines, but may need to incorporate electric motors, batteries, and fuel cells instead. While wings will be needed for lift, will they remain the best place for turboprop engines? Will jet engines mounted on the fuselage be replaced by new technology engines the sit on the rear of a lifting body airframe?
We are facing a coming revolution in transportation technology, whether in the air or on the ground. Electric propulsion is replacing gasoline engines in automobiles, and GM plans to offer only electric vehicles by 2035. Artificial Intelligence is rapidly improving, with self-driving cars on the road. Can pilotless or reduced workload cockpits be far behind?
Over the next two decades, many more of the legacy programs that we’ve known for many years will come under pressure from new technologies and economic obsolescence. Battery swapping and recharging should become standardized, with FBOs offering recharges as well as aviation fuel. The world is changing, and our future is exciting. But how long will a new program that enters service this year with existing technologies see as a production run? The days of 50-year production runs may be over as revolutionary technologies change our industry.
Knowing that a technology revolution is underway and likely to move upward from smaller to larger aircraft, how excited would you be in introducing a new program based on today’s technologies? A strategy to modify existing programs to buy time until revolutionary technologies can be successfully introduced might actually make sense at this point in time, particularly for those designing smaller aircraft.
Will there be a first-mover advantage for those incorporating innovative technologies? Will the infrastructure for charging batteries or swapping fuel cells exist, and will the industry be able to standardize on the charging stations and systems? Will users adopt new technology rapidly, or will there be a lag to market acceptance? This technology revolution will require new infrastructure and a different set of requirements than today.
While we don’t know the answers, we do know that technology will continue to move forward at an accelerated pace. The 50-year programs we have seen may soon be replaced – but by different technologies for the next half-century. In the interim, we will likely see new names emerge and some legacy players fall by the wayside. Aviation evolves, and while we will miss the iconic profile of a Learjet, it won’t be the last to become obsolete in what could become the most exciting two decades in aviation since the 1950s and 1960s when we transitioned to the jet age.