Why I’m pessimistic on the long-term career potential in big commercial airframers

I’ve been fascinated with Big Birds since I was old enough to walk, and I’ve worked directly in commercial aerospace for 15 years.

This is the first time I’ve seen this situation.

For the next 5-7 years, the only two significant commercial airframers on the planet will be preoccupied with developing their existing products.

Boeing will have their hands full delivering the 787 and all its variants, and launching the 737 MAX and the rumoured new 777 variants.

Airbus will meanwhile be preoccupied with developing the A380 (and boosting sales), delivering the A400M, and getting the A350-900, -1000, and A320neo family through flight test and entry into service.

Neither airframer is wasting any breath talking about new airframe concepts that we might see next decade. Each will occasionally do some public daydreaming about a blended wing-body concepts, transparent fuselages, etc, etc. (I suspect they do that more for the PR benefit potential than anything.)

The reasons for this situation are not hard to guess. The existing developments do need a lot of attention. Both companies have had to absorb cost hits they hadn’t expected, and so probably want to re-capitalise their coffers. Those cost hits came from technical problems that were psychologically draining. (Had I been working on the 787 for the last 4 years, I think right now I’d be exhausted.)

Whatever the reasons, it’s the first time I’ve seen the situation when neither major airframer really has any significant plans beyond the 7-year mark. Have the problems of the last decade scared them off? Are they really short of cash? Are they just plain tired?

For the knowledge worker in commercial aerospace, it doesn’t bode well. Just developing existing aircraft requires fewer knowledge workers than designing new aircraft. And it requires the right kind: People who are happy to work on the same bits of the same aircraft over and over, for years. People who want the challenge of creating something new, every day . . . . . are not going to be needed much.

So start hedging your bets now. In the words of financial analysts, take steps to minimise your exposure to the two major airframers. Develop a separate means of income on the side. Work for companies that supply to more than just one airframer. Freelance with more than one skill. Don’t wait for the boom to fall.

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