Image courtesy of Airbus

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

One hundred and twenty years ago, two Ohio bicycle makers, the Wright Brothers, founded the aircraft industry by developing the world’s first motorized airplane. Now the technology leadership of that industry is lifting off for the EU, where the multi-national EADS (Airbus) is headquartered. In September 2020, Airbus announced a major, strategic initiative called “InNOVAtion” that lassos all of the technology advances in physics, materials science, and electrically powered flight and ties them to the global demand for aircraft that can be significantly cleaner, environmentally sustainable, and quieter.

This is a very big deal as anyone in the aircraft industry will attest–2020 marks an early stage of what is already understood to be a significant and necessary transformation of this huge, and very rich, industry which has been America’s leading, federally-supported export since WWII.

But this is not the first time the Wright brothers’ invention has been taken over by outsiders. When America’s power brokers turned up their noses at the two under-educated Ohio bicycle-builders fledgling innovation, Germany enthusiastically encouraged the Wrights, and by WWII Germany was far ahead in both internal combustion-fueled and rocket-fueled flight. Germany’s dominance in the early stages of WWII provoked the U.S.’s competitive drive to re-capture the industry, something that was only accomplished with the help of thousands of German scientists who emigrated here after WWII.

Why aren’t Boeing and it’s engine partner GE—those once unbeatable, rich and globally domineering hegemons—taking the lead in the current re-invention of this extraordinarily successful, American industry? That’s a long story but it includes their cozy, undemanding relationship with the FAA and their short-term, Wall Street-driven focus on shareholder return instead of innovation.

Here at Quiet Communities, Inc. and The Quiet Coalition, we’ve focused for nearly a decade on a method we call “Push-Pull.” Push-Pull achieves change by focusing on both pushing government and communities to envision quieter, cleaner futures, and pulling companies and communities to accelerate development of technologies and methods that deliver the products and solutions we all need for healthier lives and an environmentally sustainable world.

So we’re thrilled to see Airbus embracing it’s leadership role and leading the way. Maybe their initiative will wake up and push the FAA, Boeing, GE, the Department of Defense, and Congress so that they understand that cozy, undemanding relationships backed by gigantic government subsidies are a recipe for losing a vital industry, not for growing it.

Our colleague Arline Bronzaft sent me this wonderful quote: “It’s time for all to come together and to come to grips with the problem of aviation noise, and to build, at long last, an air transportation system that is safe, healthy and quieter.” Arline was being ironic–the statement was delivered at a conference 44 years ago, on April 5, 1976, by EPA leader Russell Train.

Maybe the new competition from Airbus will change some entrenched minds in Washington and Seattle so that Russell Train’s statement will take on a second life.