In late September, United Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to accept delivery of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. That delivery, and the plane itself, provide an interesting lens into innovation and how the world is changing in certain fundamental ways.
The plane itself is a marvel of technical sophistication. Boeing claims that it is 20% more fuel efficient than the Boeing 767 due to the lightweight carbon-composite wings and fuselage – the first major airliner to use such materials. The general rule of thumb in the airline industry is that fuel accounts for approximately 30% of overall costs, so a big improvement in fuel efficiency is a big deal.
Speaking of big, the world is less big to the Dreamliner, which can fly roughly 20 hours non-stop, leading one to be thankful for other amenities the plane offers such as better cabin pressurization and reduced noise.
So, after the very first Dreamliners were delivered to Japanese carriers, can you guess which was the third airline to take delivery of their 787 before United Airlines or any other U.S. carrier?
Answer: Ethiopian Airlines
This is another example – as if we needed one – of how the developing world is…well….developing. For those of you, like me, who deeply associated Ethiopia with the word “famine”, due to the horrific famine there in the 1980s that accounted for 400,000 deaths, it is time to reconsider Ethiopia, and Africa in general.
For those born during the baby boom or shortly thereafter, news stories and innovation were generally related to the Cold War and were centered in Europe of the U.S. For today’s students, news stories and innovation know no distinct location, although much of the innovation in the next twenty years will happen in places like Mumbai, Shanghai, and Nairobi.
The arrival of a 787 Dreamliner in Ethiopia prior to its arrival in the U.S. is instructive for those interested in innovation. To be sure, being early to take delivery of a sophisticated aircraft is not innovative in the same way designing and manufacturing a sophisticated aircraft is, but the Ethiopian Airlines story underscores the following points:
Innovation is leaping like a frog, rather than traveling in a predictable line. I remember many years ago when Latin American countries crossed the line where they had more mobile lines than land lines. The reasons were largely due to the antiquated landline infrastructure. This same dynamic is at play all around the world, where countries are able to stand up better airports and invest in a better air transportation grid because they are less invested in maintaining old facilities. If you’ve spent as much time as I have in La Guardia waiting for a United flight to O’Hare, you’ll know what I mean. Recent estimates to upgrade the US air transportation system are coming in at $25B – a number that can’t be found between the couch cushions.
The developing world is developing faster than you might think. And it’s happening faster than many of us realize. Today there are more than two mobile phone users in India for every single person in the United States. Africa is leading innovation and adoption of mobile money transfer. A number of the things you will touch today came from China. And so on.
Smart innovators will think about how these changes – which are accelerating, not slowing – will impact their business. They will consider how their employee base will change, how their market opportunity will change, and how they can either get on top of the wave, or be under it.
The world’s newest, most sophisticated aircraft arrives in Ethiopia before the U.S.?
You might never have believed it in the 1990s. But then again, that was a different century.