A version of this article appears in the August 11/18 double issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Like all international air shows, last month’s Farnborough -exhibition was covered from every conceivable angle by the trade press, the business press and the general press. Such saturation coverage is bound to produce the best and worst that news organizations have to offer. However, there was one column in particular that was especially irksome. The lengthy diatribe, titled “The Price of Innovation Is Too High in Aerospace,” was prominently flagged on the front page of the Financial Times.

The author essentially ridiculed European and U.S. companies—and by extension, the industry as a whole—for touting incremental innovation. Specifically, he took issue with companies’ decisions to showcase the “operating economics, flexibility and fuel economy” of the newest commercial aircraft and engines, versus announcing more technologically ambitious development programs. 

“Here is the age of diminished expectations in aerospace,” he posited. “When I last visited Farnborough a decade ago, the talk was of risk-taking on grand projects to outmaneuver the opposition—Airbus’s A380, Boeing’s 787 and the F-35. . . . Fuel-saving is not why the Wright brothers got into the flying game, and risk-avoidance, while financially rational if the entire industry adopts the same course, makes you a target.”

Risk-avoidance? Apparently the author was unfamiliar with the Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System, the supersonic flight-test concept demonstrators that Boeing and Lockheed Martin are ready to build, Boeing’s blended-wing-body research aircraft (see photo) and the bet-the-ranch geared turbofan engine in which United Technologies Corp. invested more than $1 billion of its own money—among many other examples.

While aerospace has hardly entered an “age of diminished expectations,” this is not the first time someone—right or wrong—has challenged companies’ commitment to innovation. Indeed, some of the industry’s most universally respected leaders, both retired and still at the helm, strongly believe many companies have become too cautious in their long-range product-development strategy in favor of hitting short-term financial targets. In the case of the Financial Times article, such widely circulated messages over time could have a cumulative effect on everything, from attracting new talent to winning more advocates for the essential contribution that aerospace makes not just to national security but also to social and economic progress in the broadest sense. 

Or course, this raises the question of whether our industry even sees the need to raise the public visibility of its ongoing technological innovations. At the very least, leaders owe it to their companies and all of their stakeholders to establish—preferably through a third party—whether they are moving too far in the direction of a risk-averse culture that could undermine their organizations’ long term competitiveness and the industry’s vitality. It is an idea worth considering in the face of rapid globalization and the pressure to re-invigorate profitable revenue growth over the longer term.

It wasn’t that long ago when some senior industry officials were unable to articulate how they measured their rate of innovation and whether it was sufficient to keep competitors at bay. Today some companies will tell you their benchmark is revenue generated from new products. But is this yardstick alone adequate, or do companies need a more rigorous set of measurements for which leaders, starting with the board of directors, are held accountable? 

And how about the mix of applied R&D, which is most readily associated with incremental innovation, and basic R&D, which is more in line with the creation of disruptive technologies that can allow companies to leapfrog competitors in a single bound? Chief technology officers will tell you there is a role for both, but what is the most rewarding balance? And what is the litmus test for validating whether companies are being too conservative in funding one over the other? 

The issue here is not about the questionable premise of “The Price of Innovation Is Too High in Aerospace.” At face value, the author seemed to argue that aerospace had stopped pursuing all but the most mundane innovations and that game-changing technologies henceforth were off the table. The issue is what can happen when an industry is at the top of its game, as aerospace arguably is today. 

Success often breeds arrogance to the point where even the most successful companies can find themselves less relevant to the markets they serve, and losing ground. There is no shortage of examples in aerospace. To suggest that companies generally are in peril of losing the risk-taking mentality that made the industry an extraordinary wellspring of innovation would be ludicrous. Nevertheless, leadership teams at established companies would do well to remember that casebooks are filled with examples of what happens when organizations start worrying more about protecting what they have than discovering what they can be. 

Anthony L. Velocci, Jr., was editor-in-chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology from 2003-12.