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Aeroplanes, Airships and Beta Bias

Blog Post | Air Transport

Aeroplanes, Airships and Beta Bias

This article was published at the Pessimists Archive on 2/8/2024.

We cannot understand to what practical use a flying machine that is heavier than air can be put.

Manchester Guardian, 1908

This amusing quote was shared on Twitter by ex-Financial Times assistant editor Brian Groom. Naturally we went looking for the original source and after a little digging, we found it:

Old article from 'The Manchester Guardian' titled 'The Aeroplane and The Airship'
The Manchester Guardian, later renamed The Guardian

Revealed is the quote’s context: a comparison between aeroplanes and airships, prompted by a historic breakthrough: 1 week prior the Wright Brothers publicly proved possible heavier than air flying machines.

Sizing up the aeroplane against then dominant airships was a natural reaction to the breakthrough. Like many others, The Manchester Guardian (later renamed The Guardian) noted the existing limits of this nascent technology and the upsides of the established alternative.

Airships didn’t need a runway to take off or land, were easy to control, could hover mid-air and allowed the transport of many people at an average cruising altitude of 650ft – while the Wright Brothers only achieved 20ft. (The fact Airships were full of highly flammable gas went unmentioned.)

The Manchester Guardian commended the Wright Brother’s impressive “acrobatic” achievement and “great feat of mechanical engineering”, but dismissed the aeroplanes military potential because of early downsides: its low cruising altitude meant “it presented a target that no one who had ever handled a gun could possibly miss.” And its use in reconnaissance was doubted due to its limited capacity to carry passengers and the difficulty of piloting, giving “no opportunity to observe the world below.” The piece would end by commending the English, French and German governments for its focus on airship development.

The US Military officials present at the Wrights public demonstration were more optimistic however – seeing beyond early limits – towards possible improvement, with the Navy signalling intent to begin purchase of the new technology immediately.

Image of military Aeroplanes

Only 6 years later World War I would begin, military Aeroplanes would take to the skies – first for reconnaissance – helping the allied forces prevent the German’s invasion of France, among other things. This new intelligence advantage, saw weaponization soon follow, as each side sought to take out each others reconnaissance crafts.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, France suggested it create a flying corps of 4,500 aeroplanes, the US set a goal of 22,625 – echoing the enthusiasm of its military leaders on first witnessing manned flight. It never managed to fulfil this goal and purchased the majority of its planes from France and the United Kingdom. By the end of the war it would form the Royal Airforce, the first dedicated airforce in the world, one that would play a key roll in World War II.

Beta Bias

On paper – looking at pros and cons – dismissing the aeroplane would have felt fair, convincing and well reasoned in 1908. The problem though: this could apply to many nascent breakthrough technologies when comparing them to established alternatives. It isn’t a fair or useful comparison.

This common error in thinking about technology is certainly a strain of “status quo bias,” but should probably have a name: we’re christening it “beta bias.”

Beta Bias: The inclination to compare an early-stage version of a new technology, typically in its beta or developmental phase, with a more developed and established alternative technology. This comparison often overlooks the growth potential, cost reductions and future improvements of the new technology, leading to an underestimation of its eventual impact and utility.

Every nascent innovation has a more developed predecessor, more familiar and socially acceptable, with clear advantages, and disadvantages that society has rationalized. We’ll be exploring ‘beta bias’ more in our next post.

Blog Post | Air Transport

Flying Abundance (And Safety) Has Increased Dramatically

Get 10.8 flights from New York to London today for the time price of one in 1970 and be 80.4 times safer.

Summary: Since the Wright brothers’ pioneering flight in 1903, the aviation industry has made remarkable strides in safety, affordability, and accessibility. Comparing flight prices from 1970 to today reveals a staggering 90.8 percent decrease in the time price of flying, with transcontinental flights now affordable for the average person. Additionally, advancements in aviation technology have made flying dramatically safer today than it was in 1970, and are likely to improve flying safety in the future.


The Wright brothers launched the era of aviation on December 17, 1903, with a 12-second flight. Since then, aeronautical engineers and market innovators have made the experience safer, faster, and much more affordable.

For example, in 1970 the price for a roundtrip ticket from New York to London was $550. Blue-collar workers at the time were earning around $3.93 an hour in compensation (wages and benefits). This suggests a time price of around 140 hours.

Today, the ticket price has dropped to around $467. Blue-collar workers are now earning closer to $36.15 an hour, putting the time price at 12.9 hours. The time price has fallen by 90.8 percent: for the time required to earn the money to buy one flight in 1970, you can get 10.8 flights today.

Flying abundance has increased by 980 percent, compounding at an annual rate of 4.5 percent over the last 54 years. During this same period the global population increased by 4.3 billion (117 percent), from 3.7 billion to more than 8 billion. Every 1 percentage point increase in population corresponded to an 8.4 percentage point increase in flying abundance.

Now transcontinental flights are affordable for almost everyone. Free-market entrepreneurial capitalism isn’t about making more luxuries for the wealthy, it’s about making luxuries affordable for the average person.

While it is true that the 1970s flights may have had roomier cabins and better dining, flying today is dramatically safer. The Aviation Safety Network tracks airline accident data. Revenue passenger kilometer (RPK) is a standard metric used in aviation. Using this data, Javier Mediavilla plotted the ratio of fatalities per trillion RPK from 1970 to 2019 using five-year averages. The ratio decreased by 98.76 percent, from 3,218 to 40, during this 49-year range. Flying is more than 80.4 times safer today than in 1970, and safety has been improving at a compound rate of around 9.37 percent a year.

Considering both the time price and safety, flying has become 868 times more abundant since 1970 (10.8 x 80.4 = 868). If there had been no innovation in flying since 1970,  New York to London airfare would be around $5,059 today. Only the rich could afford transatlantic flights in 1970.

The 3,442-mile flight takes around seven hours. The supersonic Concorde could fly it in less than three. While there are no commercial supersonic flights available today, Boom Supersonic, a private company based in Colorado, aims to bring them back to US airlines by 2029. Perhaps spending half as much time on flights will allow people to use their most valuable resource for other value-creating activities.

This article was published at Gale Winds on 3/26/2024.

Wall Street Journal | Air Transport

How the World’s Biggest Plane Would Supersize Wind Energy

“Mark Lundstrom, an MIT-trained rocket scientist and Rhodes scholar, has spent more than seven years with an engineering team designing the WindRunner, a gargantuan cargo plane. If completed, it will be the largest plane by length and cargo volume.

The plane’s purpose is to carry wind turbine blades the length of football fields. The blades, among the world’s longest, are currently used only for offshore projects because of transportation limitations onshore. Opening vast swaths of land to the largest turbines could transform wind energy, which has seen a slowdown in new U.S. onshore projects and price turmoil for offshore projects.

The result would be land-based wind power installations with a blade tip reaching about 300 feet higher than the current average.”

From Wall Street Journal.

The Verge | Air Transport

Boom’s First Test Flight Could Signal Return of Supersonic Travel

“Aviation startup Boom Supersonic took a major step today toward its goal of returning commercial supersonic aviation to the skies, after the company’s prototype aircraft, the XB-1, left the ground for the first time this week. The short, subsonic flight over the Mojave Desert came years later than expected, but it shows that Boom is at least still making progress.”

From The Verge.

Bloomberg | Air Transport

Two Airplanes Lugging Cargo Together Is Texas Startup’s Bet

“On an abandoned Air Force field near Lubbock peppered with prairie-dog holes, the startup Aerolane is testing a business plan to pull cargo gliders with small freighter planes. The concept from former executives at Amazon.com Inc. and BNSF Railway Co. is that carriers could double capacity by towing a second engineless aircraft.

The potential savings — as much as 65% less fuel burn when the gliders are purpose-built for aerodynamics — are huge for a $135 billion air-freight industry that doesn’t blink at investing in new aircraft engines to reduce fuel use by 15% and that quickly adopted winglets to boost efficiency just 5%.”

From Bloomberg.