The world’s largest aerospace conglomerate turns 100 this month. But how did the Boeing brand become synonymous with innovation in flight, and what’s in store for its second century?
Boeing first took off on 15 July 1916 when a Seattle lumber merchant started the Pacific Aero Products Company to explore the idea of making seaplanes. William Boeing’s first effort, the renowned Model 1, sat on two wooden canoes stitched together with piano wire. But it flew, and an immediate contract with the US military set the business on a path to success.
Back then making planes was an artisanal effort. Skilled craftsmen would stretch and sew fabric over wooden frames, and Bill Boeing insisted on the lightest materials: balsa wood as well as mahogany, silk as well as canvas. These early birds were held together by nifty stitching that wouldn’t look out of place on today’s Great British Sewing Bee.
The little ‘Red Barn’ factory where these early planes were born still exists today as part of Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
When the first world war ended in 1918, the US domestic aviation industry struggled for survival and Boeing turned his attention to making bedroom furniture and powerboats. His chance came again though with the transportation of letters for the US Mail service, modifying his wood and canvas aircraft with stronger metal tubes to carry the all important cargo of correspondence.
Innovation in production continued to drive the business forward, laying the foundation for the mass manufacturing techniques that enabled Boeing’s efficiency in future years.
The company perfected a way to arc-weld light steel tubing. This process helped it to develop smaller, lighter fighter planes as well as the larger commercial carriers. The PW-9 fighter was the first to benefit in 1922.
Through the 1920s, gradually, monoplanes replaced the old biplane design. And, before the decade was out, another great innovation would revolutionise flight – cabin pressurisation. Flying was not a particularly enjoyable experience for the ordinary passenger up until this point. Despite being incredibly quick and convenient, it was still a bumpy, chilly and nauseating ride. The original Boeing air hostesses were actually nurses, to take care of passengers who became sick or passed out mid-flight. In modern parlance, customer experience strategy looked to the engineering teams to solve this problem.
As Mike Lombardi, Boeing’s corporate historian, puts it: “Douglas [Boeing’s former arch-rival] came out with the DC-2 and then the DC-3 – planes made of steel. They were faster and more comfortable. Boeing had to do something.” And so it developed the ability to pressurise the cabin. This meant planes could could fly at 20,000 feet, over most of the weather, with breathable air providing a more stable and comfortable flight.
Boeing launched the Stratoliner with this innovation built in, but the second world war cut production short as the company focused its attention on the war effort, turning out B-17 and B-29 bombers. After the war, Boeing suffered turbulence again as lucrative military contracts disappeared and 70,000 people lost their jobs.
The supersonic age
Boeing continued to pursue the large commercial jet market, but also built a profitable division focusing on short range and intercontinental missile technologies. This period of rapid technological advance saw the arrival of the 707, Boeing’s first proper modern airliner, in 1958.
The period also saw an obsession with supersonic flight. The Anglo-French model Concorde struck a chord of envy, and millions of dollars were sunk into Boeing’s ill-fated 2707 supersonic project. The development hit the perfect storm of rising fuel prices in the 1970s and a civilian aircraft recession. The prototype was never finished and became known as ‘the plane that almost ate Seattle’. At the height of the gloom, the government reduced its funding completely, and Boeing reduced its workforce by two-thirds. A sign was famously put up outside the airport reading ‘Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights’.
The supersized 747
“Chances are you’ve heard about the plane with the spiral staircases, the eight foot ceilings in economy – who’s going to get this bird off the ground?” So goes the cheerful voiceover in a commercial for PanAm airline’s brand new 747s in 1970. Actually a side project in the race for supersonic flight, the Boeing 747, nicknamed the Jumbo Jet (to this day) became the aircraft that saved the company.
American Airlines advertised the 747 as ‘the plane with no competition’. Thai Airlines even had an ad featuring an elephant driver on the cabin roof, while American carrier National Airlines ran controversial advertising with the 747 promoting Miami go-go parties with dancing girls and trips to the dubious pleasures of Las Vegas, much to the annoyance of the emerging feminist movement.
Beyond commercial flight, the company’s associations with Nasa put men on the moon, keeps the International Space Station flying and led to enormous technological advances including GPS, putting you, dear reader, on the map right now.
From Seattle to Southend-on-Sea
By the the turn of the century there was only one major aircraft manufacturer left in the US. Boeing had gradually swallowed the rest, even its bitterest rival McDonnell Douglas. Having won the battle of the brands at home, the business needed to change outlook for the global economy. It took “a conscious decision to become a more global business,” Sir Michael Arthur, chief executive of Boeing UK and Ireland, told the Telegraph. The UK is an important part of that process. Boeing spends $1.6bn in the UK alone on supply chain. Just one tiny example – all the pilots seats for the new Dreamliner are built in Southend. Think of that when you’re heading off to Majorca on EasyJet.
It’s a grounded perspective. “The UK is a particularly big buyer of Boeing defence aircraft – Chinooks and Apaches. But we also have contracts with the government to keep them flying,” Arthur told CBI. Previously, government procurement focused on reducing the cost of purchasing and then traded on a secondary service contract. Now the approach is to provide ‘up time’ wherever that happens to be. It’s a financial and structural innovation that forces the brand to be smarter with IT and risk management.
Room for disruption
So where next for Boeing? Is aerospace the next target for the disruptionistas?
Perhaps not in the Uber sense, targeting en masse customers solely concerned with cost, but in the sense of Tesla and its high-end disruption (expensive, experimental products that sell fairly well at the very top of the market) then yes.
The Pipistrel Panthera, for example, has already been dubbed ‘the Tesla Roadster of the sky’. With four seats, cruising at 200 knots, an all-glass Garmin G2000 cockpit and available in electric, hybrid or petrol, it will probably sell well. But Boeing will see it as less of a threat.
That’s because in the next 20 years the number of planes in the sky is expected to double. And with 38,000 of them predicted to be new, Boeing is making planes as fast as it can. It’s unlikely to be too worried about Elon Musk’s Hyperloop just yet.
Alastair Duncan catches up with Peter Serchuk, creative director on Boeing for 20 years, to discuss centennial film 'You Just Wait'.
AD: What inspired 'You Just Wait'?
PS: Boeing had already approved a spot celebrating the company's amazing past. We wanted a celebration of the future as well. So we began a dialogue with a number of Boeing futurists - forward to extrapolate where various technologies are likely to lead in both the short and long term.
The more we listened the more inspired we became. We soon realised 25-50 years ahead wouldn't provide a visual landscape remarkably different from today. That's when the opening line of 'You Just Wait' popped into my head - 'welcome to the world, 2016'. The spot pretty much wrote itself from there, made better by the Boeing futurists' guidance. I don't think we changed five words from the first draft. And the Mill were brilliant in bring the production to life.
AD: And what's your favourite Boeing ad of the past 100 years?
PS: There are far too many ads and spots to give a simple answer to that question. However, I've always admired the work Cole & Weber did for Boeing years ago, in particular a pot titled 'Names'.
In my 10 years working on Boeing, I think we created a fair number of truly great pieces, including the current Boeing Corporate Campaign 'Build Something Better' which includes the centennial spot 'You Just Wait'.
The spot titles 'Doesn't Fly' highlighting the volunteerism of Boeing employees was one I was particularly proud of. It opens with the line: "It's one of the most amazing things we build and it doesn't even fly."
Alastair Duncan is chief strategy officer at Splash Worldwide and was formerly founder and global strategy lead at Jaguar's global in-house agency Spark44.