Survival of the slowest

Aviation is a cut-throat trade, but has the pursuit of profit stifled the business, perpetuating the use of anachronistic design?

The first globetrotting design critic, a product of the early jet age, was Peter Reyner Banham. Usually he wrote about architecture, but, being an aero-engineer by training and an art buff by inclination, he often found himself writing about design. Such as the small-wheeled Moulton bicycle he rode. And, of course, the planes he glamorously found himself travelling in, back in the days when intercontinental travel was far from humdrum.

In an enviably concise essay of 1962, Banham compares the respective merits of the piston-engined Douglas DC6 and the turboprop Vickers Viscount, which he flew one after the other in Australia. The ageing Douglas won hands-down. Why? Because ‘the Doug was designed with innate style by people who cared about designing airliners and built a good one: this Viscount seemed to have been designed with no thoughts beyond load-factors and paying seats.’

He then hops to the US and compares the Douglas DC8 jetliner with its rival, the Boeing 707. Same result: Douglas gets the palm. ‘They are the aircraft that set the standard by which all other jets fail,’ enthused Banham. ‘Built like tanks, with professionalism in every detail. ‘And the Boeing? Dismissed as ‘a mass of neurotic twitches’. What he does not tell us is that the DC8 was over-engineered and fatally late to the market.

I remembered Banham’s essay recently on an EasyJet flight. The orange airline runs parallel fleets of Boeing 737s – the budget-airline workhorse – and its commercial rival, the Airbus A319. By chance my flight out was on an Airbus, my flight back the same day on a 737. A Banham moment: compare-and-contrast time.

Well, of course, the 319 wins by a mile. It’s a modern design, it has a slightly wider fuselage for the same number of seats, it has presence and poise. In contrast, the 737 is an ancient design, endlessly modified down the years. It started off life as a cut-down 707 and still has the pinch-cheeked 707 nose. It squats so close to the Tarmac that when they came to bolt newer, bigger turbofans to its wings, they had to flatten the bottoms of the air intakes so they don’t bump the ground. It’s a lash-up. It’s also the most successful commercial jet airliner ever.

This tells us something. Just as Banham was right but wrong – where is Douglas nowadays? Who won that air war? – so we’d be unwise to write off Boeing now that Airbus seems to have the upper hand. True, no airline has bought a new passenger Boeing 747 for years now because of the advent of Airbus’s wonderfully quiet superjumbo A380. Yet the budget airlines – EasyJet excepted – are still buying 737s by the hundred. And the orders are flooding in for Boeing’s new medium-sized 787 Dreamliner. Airbus is slow getting its equivalent plane to market. It finds itself in the Douglas position. It does better planes than Boeing. But in the airline business, it’s not just a matter of better design. It’s to do with image, timing, deal-making, marketing chutzpah.

Banham dismissed the Viscount in these words: ‘It was the profit-motive with wings, and an uglier sight I hope never to see.’ How very true, but how very naive. The Viscount was a successful plane commercially, no doubt for that reason. If design was all that mattered in aviation, we’d all be flying by now in third-generation Concordes. Did you know that airliners are now slower than they were in the late 1950s?

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