Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm.

The airplane industry needs its iPhone

Reading airplane industry news these days reminds me a lot of the smartphone business before Apple stunned everyone with the iPhone in 2007.

That is: A few companies getting by with minor updates to their products, letting a few big customers dictate their roadmap, without any major breakthroughs.

If you want to get a feel for it, check out this article by Jon Ostrower for FlightBlogger. Basically, Boeing is trying to figure out how to evolve its best-selling 737 plane, and the options are not particularly inspiring:

There are two teams vying for the endorsement of Boeing’s top leadership. One advocating for an all-new aircraft delivering 20% improvement in fuel burn and a 10% or greater improvement in cash operating costs. The other, working to further evolve the 737 with a new engine and a host of other improvements to yield a 10-15% improvement in fuel burn, without requiring massive engineering changes to today’s aircraft.

Reading this reminds me of the types of changes Palm and Nokia were making to their smartphones in 2006: A 20% improvement in thickness or a 10% decrease in wholesale price, without any sort of revolution.

And the way Boeing and Airbus seem to work, it sounds like they’re going to make their design decisions just to make the big airlines happy — the way RIM and Motorola may have done things just to keep AT&T and Verizon happy — without really thinking about what’s next.

In mobile phones, it took Apple’s iPhone in 2007 to really flip the industry upside down. As an avid airplane observer and flier, that’s the kind of thing I’d love to see happen to the plane industry — whether it’s by Boeing, Airbus, or someone out of left field.

Now, the smartphone-airplane analogy eventually falls apart, of course. A lot of the things that could be improved in commercial flying have to do with crummy airlines and lousy service, which the plane makers aren’t really responsible for. Software issues, if you will. So maybe the real breakthrough isn’t a new 737, but a different theory in flying — personal jets, or Air Google, or something crazy.

But it would be really exciting to see an iPhone-like breakthrough in airliners. It’s the kind of thing that the industry really seems to need.