What is the Future of Aerospace: From the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry

What is the Future of Aerospace?

From the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry

By Fred Workley

Fred Workley
Fred Workley

The Commission on the Future of the Aerospace Industry has issued a final report. The report outlines nine goals for aerospace reform and specifies several core competencies that the nation must address.

This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of aviation. The aerospace industry has opened up new frontiers to the world, such as freedom of flight and access to space. It has provided products that have defended our nation, sustained our economic development, and safeguarded the freedoms we enjoy. It has helped forge new inroads in medicine and science, and fostered the growth of commercial products that have improved the quality of life.

With a commitment to engineering, scientific, and manufacturing expertise, there is the promise of still more innovations and new frontiers.

The contributions of aerospace to our global leadership have been so successful that U.S. preeminence in aerospace is taken for granted. Yet the evidence doesn't support this. The U.S. aerospace industry has consolidated from what was once more than 70 suppliers in 1980 down to five prime contractors today. Only one U.S. commercial prime aircraft manufacturer remains. Airlines absorbed historical losses of more than $7 billion in 2001. And the news is full of reports of wage concessions and bankruptcy filings that indicate the losses will continue to escalate.

The industry is confronted with a graying workforce, with an estimated 26 percent available for retirement within the next five years. New entrants to the industry have dropped to historical lows as the number of industry layoffs mount. Compounding the workforce crisis is the failure of the educational system to properly equip students with the math, science, and technological skills needed to advance the aerospace industry.

The Commission on the Future of the Aerospace Industry's purpose is to call attention to the underpinnings of this nation's aerospace industry and to focus on the areas that need support.

During the year that the Commission did individual and collective research, it visited and spoke with aerospace leaders in the United States, Europe, and Asia. It noted how other countries are directing attention and resources to foster an indigenous aerospace industry. This is in contrast to the attitude in the United States, which stands dangerously close to squandering the advantage bequeathed by prior generations of aerospace leaders.

Congress gave the Commission a broad mandate to study the health of the aerospace industry and to identify actions that the United States needs to take to ensure its health in the future. The Commission's report contains recommendations intended to catalyze action from leaders in government, industry, labor, and academia and assure this industry's continued prominence.

An aerospace vision
This nation needs a national vision to keep the hallmarks of aerospace alive - imagination and innovation. For inspiration, the Commission looked to what aerospace can do for the nation and the world. The vision the Commission used to guide its efforts is "Anyone, Anything, Anywhere, Anytime."

The Commissioners represent a broad cross section of the stakeholders responsible for the health of the industry and whose expertise represents the breadth and depth of aerospace issues. Drawing on their extensive experience, and on the hundreds of briefings and public testimony, the Commission has made nine recommendations that provide guidance to the nation's leaders on the future of the U.S. aerospace industry.

The following are the conclusions and recommendations in the final report.

1. Vision
To achieve its vision for aerospace, the Commission concluded that:

  • The nation needs a national aerospace policy;
  • There needs to be a government-wide framework that implements this policy;
  • The Administration and Congress need to remove prohibitive legal and regulatory barriers that impede this sector's growth and continually seek to level the international playing field; and
  • Global U.S. aerospace leadership can only be achieved through investments in our future, including our industrial base, workforce, long-term research, and national infrastructure.

2. Air transportation
To develop an air transportation system that simultaneously meets U.S. civil aviation, national defense, and homeland security needs, national leadership is needed. Today, leadership and responsibility are dispersed among federal, state, and local organizations that impact the aviation community. Only strong federal leadership, aimed at a national objective, can sustain a transformational effort.

The core of an integrated transportation system will be a common advanced communications, navigation, and surveillance infrastructure and modern operational procedures.

The Commission also calls for a new approach to the regulation and certification of aircraft technology, processes, and procedures. It recommends that the FAA should shift focus from product to process certification.

This transformation requires:

  • Rapid deployment of a new, highly automated air traffic management system;
  • Accelerated introduction of new aerospace systems by shifting from product to process certification and providing implementation support; and
  • Streamlined new airport and runway development.

3. Space
The Commission concludes that the nation will have to be a space-faring nation in order to be the global leader in the 21st century - "our freedom, mobility, and quality of life will depend on it. America must exploit and explore space to assure national and planetary security, economic benefit and scientific discovery. At the same time, the United States must overcome the obstacles that jeopardize its ability to sustain leadership in space."

Government and investors must become more sensitive to commercial opportunities. Public space travel may be a viable marketplace in the future. It holds the potential for increasing launch demand and improvements in space launch reliability and reusability. It could lead to a robust space transportation industry with "airline-like operations." The government could help encourage this by allowing private citizens to fly on the Space Shuttle.

The Commission recommends that the United States create a space imperative. The DoD, NASA, and industry must partner in innovative aerospace technologies, especially in the areas of propulsion and power. This will enhance national security, provide economic growth, accelerate exploration, and open up new opportunities for public space travel and other commercial endeavors.

4. National security
Aerospace capabilities and the supporting defense industrial base are fundamental to U.S. economic and national security, according to the Commission. While the nation's defense industrial base is strong today, the nation is at risk if there is no policy that supports essential aerospace capabilities.

The Commission recommends that the nation adopt a policy that invigorates and sustains the aerospace industrial base. This policy must include:

  • Procurement policies which include prototyping, spiral development, and other techniques to promote design and production skills;
  • Removing barriers to defense procurement of commercial products and services;
  • Propagating defense technology into the commercial sector;
  • Removing barriers to international sales of defense products;
  • Sustaining critical technologies that are not likely to be sustained by the commercial sector; and
  • Stable funding for core capabilities.

5. Government
The Commission concludes that the government must ensure that the nation has a healthy aerospace industry to meet the security and economic needs of the country and compete successfully in the international marketplace. The government needs to exert leadership and prioritize and promote aerospace by managing its activities efficiently and effectively to accomplish national objectives.

Government processes for policy, planning, and budgeting, and for developing and acquiring aerospace products and services are vestiges of the Cold War. And a concerted effort is needed to streamline these processes. It will require an integrated federal planning, budgeting, and program management process; an integrated government science, technology, and acquisition process; and an environment that fosters rather than impedes innovation in the aerospace sector.

Partnerships and interconnectedness are keys to competitiveness. Government, industry, labor, and academia play different, but important, roles in developing and deploying new aerospace products and services. They cannot perform these roles separately and in isolation. But, cultural and institutional biases hinder the ability to partner and achieve national goals. What is needed is an environment and the incentives that will foster private/public partnerships.

The Commission recommended that the federal government establish a national aerospace policy and promote aerospace by creating a government-wide management structure. This would include a White House policy coordinating council, aerospace management office in the OMB, and a joint committee in Congress along with an annual budget to fund the initiatives.

6. Global markets
Open global markets are critical to the continued economic health of U.S. aerospace companies and to U.S. national security. In order to remain global leaders, U.S. companies must remain at the forefront of technology development. They must also have access to global customers, suppliers, and partners in order to achieve economies of scale in production needed to integrate that technology into their products and services.

The Commission recommended that U.S. and multilateral regulations and policies be reformed to enable the movement of products and capital across international borders on a fully competitive basis, and establish a level playing field for U.S. industry in the global market place. U.S. export control regulations must be substantially overhauled, evolving from current restrictions on technologies through the review of transactions to controls on key capabilities enforced through process controls.

7. Business: The aerospace sector
For the aerospace industry to be globally preeminent, now and in the future, it must be able to attract vitally needed capital at a reasonable cost. The defense and aerospace sector is viewed as a low growth industry with low margins, unstable revenue, and a capricious major customer, the government. Without a significant change in the business model, the future of the aerospace industry, so critical to our national economic and homeland security, is uncertain and at risk.

"Major challenges include the need for dramatic personnel and training reform and recognition of the dynamic interrelated global environment. Government and industry should work together to develop and implement training and exchange programs that would educate and expose their workforces to those challenges and responsibilities. All government officials with budget and program acquisition, management, or review responsibilities, both appointed and elected, should be required to have a business or financial background or training."

The Commission recommended a new business model, driven by increased and sustained government investment and the adoption of innovative government and industry policies that stimulate the flow of capital into new and established public and private companies on a global basis.

8. Workforce
There is a major workforce crisis in the aerospace industry: The nation has lost more than 600,000 scientific and technical aerospace jobs in the past 13 years. This trend began as a result of reduced defense spending following the Cold War. This led to an industry shift from a dependence on defense sales to commercial markets. Increased competition in the commercial aerospace market has led to contractions in the industry, resulting in mergers and acquisitions. Job losses from this consolidation have been compounded by the cyclical nature of the industry.

Due to these uncertainties, most of the workers who have lost their jobs are unlikely to return to the industry. These losses represent a devastating loss of skill, experience, and intellectual capital to the industry.

Industry, government, and labor must begin to work now to restore an aerospace industry that will be healthy, stable, and vibrant. U.S. policy toward domestic aerospace employment must reaffirm the goal of stabilizing and increasing the number of good and decent jobs in the industry.

The aerospace industry must have access to a scientifically and technologically trained workforce. Action must be taken to improve mathematics and science instruction across the entire education range - K-12 through graduate school. Scholarship and internship programs should be developed to encourage more U.S. students to study and work in these fields. In addition, investments should be made in vocational education to develop a highly skilled workforce, including registered apprenticeship programs for skilled and technical occupations.

In addition, the Commission concludes that emphasis must be placed on the concepts of "lifelong learning" and "individualized instruction" as key elements of education reform.

To accomplish these goals the Administration and Congress must:

  • Create an interagency task force with a national strategy to attract public attention to the importance and opportunities within the aerospace industry;
  • Establish lifelong learning and individualized instruction as key elements of educational reform; and
  • Make long-term investments in education and training with major emphasis in math and science.

9. Research
The United States must maintain its preeminence in aerospace research and innovation to be the global aerospace leader. This can only be achieved through proactive government policies and sustained public investments in long-term research and RDT&E infrastructure.

The U.S. aerospace sector has been living off the research investments made primarily for defense during the Cold War. The challenges posed by our rapidly changing world demand that we, like the Wright Brothers 100 years ago, look at the challenges as opportunities for aerospace and turn them into reality.

The Administration and Congress should adopt the following aerospace technology demonstration goals for 2010 as a national priority. These goals could revolutionize aerospace in the next half century much like the development of the jet, radar, space launch, and satellites did over the last half-century.

Air transportation

  • Demonstrate an automated and integrated air transportation capability that would triple capacity by 2025;
  • Reduce aviation noise and emissions by 90 percent;
  • Reduce aviation fatal accident rate by 90 percent; and
  • Reduce transit time between any two points on earth by 50 percent.


  • Reduce cost and time to access space by 50 percent;
  • Reduce transit time between two points in space by 50 percent; and
  • Show the capability to continuously monitor and survey the earth, its atmosphere, and space for a wide range of military, intelligence, civil, and commercial applications.

Time to market and product cycle time

  • Reduce the transition time from technology demonstration to operational capability from years and decades to weeks and months.

Promise for the future
The aerospace industry reflects the spirit of America. It has been, and continues to be, a sector of pioneers drawn to the challenge of new frontiers. To maintain this nation's heritage and global leadership, we must remain dedicated to a strong and prosperous aerospace industry and kindle a passion within our youth that beckons them to reach for the stars.

Fred Workley is the president of Workley Aircraft and Maintenance Inc. in Alexandria, VA, Benton City, WA, and Indianapolis, IN. He holds an A&P certificate with an Inspection Authorization, general radio telephone license, a technician plus license, ATP, FE, CFI-I, and advance and instrument ground instructor licenses.