Aviation analyst isn’t buying the dream of ‘disruptive’ new flying machines

Veteran industry analyst Richard Aboulafia doesn’t believe that a bunch of aviation startups will revolutionize the industry, Silicon Valley-style, with personal octocopters or electric intra-urban miniplanes.

Aviation has starry-eyed innovators to propel it forward, and tart-tongued industry watcher Richard Aboulafia to keep it grounded in reality.

The veteran Teal Group analyst’s latest monthly missive takes on the proliferation of recent startups that aim to revolutionize aviation with disruptive flying machines.

He’s not buying it: “If Dr. Seuss drew air vehicles, he’d be perfect for these newcomers.”

Aboulafia is addressing a range of would-be innovators, from Uber’s vision of electric, multi-rotor “flying car” copters and small supersonic transports by Spike and Boom to Zunum Aero, the local startup recently backed by Boeing and JetBlue, which proposes a hybrid-electric regional propfan plane. There are also visions for autonomous or remotely piloted vehicles.

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He lumps them together as “this weird new maze of 1950s Popular Mechanics cover stories,” and extends his derision to the old-line aerospace companies that, according to him, are dabbling in these experiments to gain some tech cachet.

“That Silicon Valley thing with engineers in T-shirts, ramen noodles, a foosball table and no business plan? That just ain’t aircraft,” he declares.

Substantively, Aboulafia says, aviation is not like computer hardware — there’s nothing like Moore’s Law, the proposition that computing power doubles every 18 to 24 months. Aviation moves in much smaller increments, and if it is to head in the direction of faster, cheaper, and more personal aircraft it will require new technology for engines and batteries — which seems unlikely to come from such startups.

If intra-urban mobility with hopscotching copters “is such a great idea, why not prove it with existing technology?” he asks, noting that those could be piloted by remote control or run autonomously and might even prove cost-effective. His answer: “They wouldn’t grab eyeballs” — and hence investors — “the way a CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced polymer) egg with 10 to 12 rotors would.”

After dismissing the fleet of would-be newcomers as just so much science fiction, Aboulafia notes that “for the first time in many decades, this industry has just seen a new market entrant.”

The new player last year was Honda Aircraft, which has delivered about 30 of its sleek and stylish 6-person jets so far.

“They started work on the HondaJet twenty years ago, and they’ve blown through at least a billion dollars,” writes Aboulafia. Even so, Honda hasn’t disrupted the market for established small jets like Cessna’s Citation M2.

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