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1997 Speeches

Harry C. Stonecipher

The Boeing Company

"Airplane 101: A Primer on Aviation"

Dinner Address to Journalists & Airline PR directors

Taking Part in Two-Day Boeing "Airplane 101" Course

Salty Dog Restaurant

Seattle, Washington

September 25, 1997

Let me see a show of hands. How many of you who reside outside the state of Washington came to Seattle by car? How many by train? How many by boat? How many by air?

I'm not surprised.

All of you chose the safest, fastest, cheapest, and most convenient way to get here. If you had more than a couple hundred miles to travel, you probably didn't think twice about coming any other way.

Let's take a closer look at some of the things that most people take for granted when they book an airline ticket.

First of all, safety.

Outside the ranks of professional airline pilots, there aren't many people who truly feel safer in an airplane than they do in their own car, or in a boat or train. This is especially the case when an airplane encounters heavy turbulence as it is hurtling through storm-darkened skies at close to the speed of sound.

Looking out the window in bouncy, storm-tossed conditions, many passengers blanch at the sight of the wings flapping up and down. They think: Is metal supposed to act like that??? Is it supposed to withstand hurricane-force winds and extremes of temperature greater than anything on the surface of the earth? Unlike you, they have not had the benefit of seeing our wing-break video -- demonstrating how the wings have been tested to guarantee their ability to withstand forces far greater than the worst imposed by Mother Nature.

The facts about safety are incontrovertible. Statistically, based on miles traveled, you are several thousand times more likely to be killed in a car accident than you are on a scheduled airline flight. Air travel is the safest common mode of travel. You are safer on an airplane . . . in the worst weather . . . than you are on a bicycle . . . on the sunniest day of the year.

Second, speed.

You can go from New York to Seattle on Amtrak, but it will take you three whole days to get there. Figure the same time for car. You could also go by boat -- switching between three different cruise ships on a route down the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and up the Pacific. The trip takes a minimum of three weeks and three days, and it will cost you a grand total of $6,088.

Or . . . you could go by air -- and be there in less than six hours. This would cost you less than $400 with an advanced purchase ticket. Unlike the boat, the plane fare includes the return trip to New York.

Third, superior economics.

Consider that the IRS -- not noted for excessive generosity in the allowability of expenses -- provides a standard deduction of 31 1/2 cents per mile for business use of automobiles. The direct cost of operating an advanced airliner work out to about 14 cents per passenger mile, or less than half that of operating a car.

Those numbers are pretty well reflected in airline ticket prices, compared with the cost of driving. Again, let's take the New York / Seattle / New York example. That's a round-trip distance of 4800 miles. At 20 miles per gallon, gas alone would cost $300, while food and lodging for your six days on the road would probably bring your total costs (not including the car's depreciation or the opportunity cost of lost time) to $900 or more. You can pick up a standard discounted air fare of $363 for the same trip.

Last, convenience.

If you take the earliest flight, leaving New York at 8:20 a.m., you will be into Seattle at 11:07 a.m. -- in time for lunch and a good half-day of business. Alternately, you may prefer to catch one of the dinner flights to Seattle, which would allow you to get some work done in New York in the first half of the day. The point is, in flying from New York to Seattle, you have a whole range of options, plus a high degree of confidence of arriving on time. Some airlines are close to the 90% mark in on-time arrivals (within 14 minutes of schedule).

By the four parameters that count the most -- safety, speed, cost and comfort -- there have been enormous, continuing improvements in air travel. What other mode of travel can make that claim?

Let's look at how things have changed over time.

It might interest you to know that a journalist with the old Chicago Herald and Examiner was the first passenger on a commercial flight. Her name was Jane Eads, and she flew aboard a Boeing aircraft on the first-ever United Airlines flight --from Chicago to San Francisco in 1929.

Like the Pony Express, the first long-distance commercial flights included several stops along the way to switch to fresh airplanes, which flew at about 100 miles per hour. The entire journey on Ms. Eads' inaugural flight took 24 hours and eighteen minutes. The flight was an hour late upon departure and three hours late upon arrival (imagine how annoyed you'd be if that happened to you today). But it was still about thirty-seven hours faster than the trains.

Later in the same year, Charles Lindbergh and Transcontinental Air Transport, the forerunner of TWA, inaugurated the first transcontinental commercial air service. Actually, it was a combined air-rail operation. In going from New York to Los Angeles, the airline teamed up with the Pennsylvania and Santa Fe railroads to carry passengers by train at night and by plane during the day. The pilots "navigated" by following the railroad line. In fact, they called the railroad line their "iron compass."

As delightful as all this might sound, you still had to be both rich . . . and brave . . . to travel by air in the late 1920s. Let me read you a few lines from Jane Eads' account of her journey. Bear in mind she was flying in a hot, noisy, unpressurized cabin. She wrote:

"I'm becoming unbearably weary with the altitude and the rough riding. The pilot was surprised I didn't become ill . . . Before landing (at Iowa City) I was too frightened to write. The plane tipped and tilted and dropped. I just threw down my pencil and hung on . . . Although we flew at an altitude of 10,000 feet (over Nevada), clouds of sand drove at us, stinging hands and face . . . We winged through a pass in the Coast Range . . . And then the plane pointed downward, its wheels touched and my adventure was ended."

I hope your two and a half day "Airplane 101" adventure with us will be equally enlightening, but not so harrowing.

The DC-3 -- which is often described as the first truly modern transport aircraft -- opened the way for explosive growth in commercial airline traffic. It marked a revolutionary advance that redefined the way airplanes were designed. In contrast to the simpler airframes of old, the DC-3 was a complex of bulkheads and cantilevered spars that can be described well only in the language of mathematics.

Within a few years of its first flight in 1935, the DC-3 became the workhorse of all three U.S. carriers that provided transcontinental service and of many other carriers outside the U.S. It enabled the early airlines to appeal not just to the rich and adventurous, but to the traveling public as a whole -- on the basis of cost, comfort, speed and safety.

The Boeing 307 Stratoliner -- the first passenger liner with a pressurized cabin -- marked the next great advance. Introduced in 1938, the Stratoliner was designed with a circular cross-section, allowing the cabin to be supercharged, or pressurized within, in order to maintain low-altitude atmospheric pressure at high altitudes. Thus, it was able to fly at altitudes up to 20,000 feet -- avoiding the stinging sand that Ms. Eads complained about . . . and most storm systems as well.

Over the next couple of decades, advances in airplane performance were more evolutionary than revolutionary. Even so, the cumulative result of a great many improvements was impressive. By the late 50's, piston-engine airplanes of similar design were flying three times the payloads, twice as fast, over six times the distances as the original DC-3.

The next great revolution in commercial aviation came with the 707, the first successful jetliner, introduced into service with Pan Am in 1958. Due to its revolutionary engines, the 707 was able to carry double the payload at twice the speed of the most advanced piston engine aircraft. As with the DC-3, the first jetliners capitalized on advances in a number of technologies -- not just the introduction of the jet engine, but further improvements in materials and aerodynamics.

Today's jetliners may not fly any faster than the original 707, but they are vastly superior nonetheless, due to a long series of evolutionary improvements. To cite one example:

The engines that will go on the 777-300s entering service next year generate 98,000 pounds of thrust each. That is nine times -- repeat, nine times -- the thrust of the original 707 engines. The new engines are more than twice as efficient in their fuel burn. What's more, they are much more reliable, much quieter, and a whole lot easier to maintain.

What has all this meant for the traveling public?

One obvious result has been the emergence of jumbo jets that can carry big payloads economically over very long distances. The 777-300, for example, will be able to carry more than 500 passengers over 6,500 statute miles -- reaching three quarters of the way to the furthest possible points on the planet Earth.

More than that, there have been continuing advances -- from short haul to long -- in the quality of the aviation product, measured in terms of cost, convenience or speed, comfort and safety.

Let's take one more look at those four critical factors.

Clearly, there is some difficulty in comparing historic prices with current prices. It used to be prices were fixed by regulation. Today they are set by the ever-changing forces of supply and demand. Purportedly, there are more than 100,000 air-fare changes in the U.S. alone every day. It all resembles a vast Christmas tree lot, with billions of dollars of unsold inventory, and lots of haggling in the weeks, days and hours leading up to Christmas. Nevertheless, it is clear that the long-term trend is toward greater value for the money, and more efficient use of ever-more productive airline assets.

According to the research firm Topaz International, the average cost per mile for an airline ticket today -- across all ticket prices from first-class to deep discount -- is 30 cents for a domestic trip and 31 cents for an international trip. Compare that with the $4 per mile cost (in today's dollars) of purchasing a seat on the Pan Am Clipper that island-hopped from Los Angeles to Hong Kong in the 40's. Today's ticket price is cheaper by a factor of more than ten -- though you get your destination about eight times faster.

The cost of airline travel has come down throughout the jet age for a whole host of reasons relating to better equipment. The newer airplanes burn substantially less fuel; they spend less time on the ground and more in the air; and they have two-person rather than three-person cockpits.

Second, convenience or speed.

It is sufficient to note that scheduled airline departures in the U.S. have quadrupled over the past few decades -- and continue to grow. The figures for international air travel are still more impressive. This tells us that there are more flights, to more cities, with greater frequency, than ever before.

Third, comfort.

Do most of you think that travel by air is more pleasant than it used to be? I am not going to ask for a show of hands, but I will ask you to reflect for a moment before making up your mind.

Without a doubt, the popularity and increased efficiency of air travel have exacted a cost of their own -- in more crowded airports and airplanes. If you are a business traveler, you may not like the idea of flying on a full airplane that includes many tourist travelers with discounted fares. Then, again, if you are taking your family on vacation -- perhaps with the help of frequent flier miles -- you might feel a little differently about your situation.

But there are other things -- often unnoticed and unappreciated -- that have made air travel more comfortable . . . and, from the passenger's perspective, more productive . . . than it used to be.

You may be unaware of the fact that the avionics in today's aircraft -- combined with modern satellite communications -- mean that today's pilots are far more adept at avoiding storm systems than they were 15 or 20 years. So that's a major plus. So too is the improvement in on-time arrivals that has come with better equipment.

Newer aircraft -- and indeed many retrofitted older aircraft -- now have telephones in every row of seats. Individualized video screens are also becoming commonplace. And the newer airplanes are equipped with power and data communications for your laptop computer. In first-class and business class, the cabin has been turned into a virtual office.

And finally, safety.

As I mentioned before, air travel remains by far the safest common mode of transport. Our challenge today is to make it safer still so that the continuing large increases that are anticipated in air travel over the coming decade are not accompanied by a rise in the total number of accidents. Some of the best people in our industry are now working on that challenge.

In closing, I would like to extend my thanks to our communications people for setting up this "Airplane 101" conference, and for giving me the opportunity to address your group. I think the idea of having an intensive seminar of this kind -- for specialists in communications, both in the news media and in industry and government -- is absolutely terrific.

As a veteran of 40 plus years in the aerospace industry, there are two things that I have always loved about this industry. The first is the chance to design and make exceptionally innovative and useful products -- products that have made a huge difference in the lives of people all over the world.

The second is the sheer fun and excitement that have always surrounded the business and science of flight.

Over the next couple of days, all of you, I'm sure, will gain an extra measure of knowledge and insight in relating to a variety of complex issues connected with aviation. When you leave this conference, I hope that you have gained something else as well. That is: an extra measure of enthusiasm and excitement that you can apply to thinking and writing about airplanes and aviation.