Great achievements begin with bold ideas

The challenges we face as a nation have been well-documented — what’s lacking is a clear national consensus about how best to meet them. 

To a large degree, restoring America’s economic health starts with restoring our collective confidence. So let’s contemplate some of the things Americans have accomplished in just the last half century that have changed the world: curing polio, inventing the integrated circuit, putting men on the moon, winning the Cold War, and developing the Internet and GPS, to name a few. 

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Economists say the recent recession was the worst downturn since the Great Depression. We can draw lessons from how our nation responded to that crisis more than eight decades ago. 

I grew up near the Grand Coulee Dam, and its construction put people to work. But it did much more than create jobs over the short term. The dam powered the Hanford Nuclear Reservation; it provided the electricity that created a vibrant aluminum industry in the Pacific Northwest and irrigated thousands of acres that had been desert. The impact of this project is still being felt more than 70 years later.

What are the great things our country is doing today? Recently, author Shelby Steele wrote, “When greatness fades, when a nation contracts to a middling place in the world, then the world in fact no longer knocks on its door.” Is that our future? 

I believe we can do great things once more. Aerospace has always enabled America’s greatness — driving our economy, exports, innovation and security. Today, opportunity abounds. There is a dynamic global market that companies such as Boeing are working to win. We see a need for 33,500 new commercial airplanes over the next 20 years. That’s a $4 trillion dollar market — one that many countries and companies covet.

We intend to capture a big share of that market for America and have invested heavily in new products. Our 787 Dreamliner, the first new airplane of the 21st century, uses 20 percent less fuel than today’s airplanes of the same size and will be 60 percent quieter. Our new 747-8 Freighter has the best economics of any cargo aircraft, and the new 737 MAX will have the lowest operating costs in the single-aisle segment. 

Nonetheless, Boeing and other U.S. businesses need their government to play a stronger role in today’s highly competitive global marketplace. We need strategies that promote innovation and competitiveness, strengthen our industrial base, level the playing field for U.S. companies and workers, and create a public infrastructure that’s second to none. 

We need Congress and the president to adopt tax and regulatory policies that encourage companies to invest and innovate here at home. We need them to address what I call the intellectual disarmament of our nation. To lead in high-tech industries like aerospace, we must have a skilled workforce. About half of Boeing’s engineers will be able to retire by 2015. The same is true for other aerospace companies, and we simply are not producing enough engineers in this country to take their place. Addressing this issue is less about spending more money on education than about inspiring students with great missions and giving them challenging projects. 

Government defense and space programs can play an important role in that regard, as well as help to stabilize and expand our nation’s industrial base. With the F-35 in test flight, there are no new military manned airplanes or helicopters in development for the first time in 100 years. When we don’t invest in new programs, and when policymakers don’t consider how procurement decisions affect the industrial base, we risk breaking a continuum of capability that’s taken decades to create. None of us in industry want to manufacture products our defense customers don’t need, but unless we have a coherent industrial base policy that protects our critical technologies and skills, I worry we will wake up some morning and find we have no ability to provide our country with the capabilities necessary to ensure our national security. 

We see the same troubling direction on the space side of our industry. Thousands of experienced, highly-trained engineers are being laid off with the demise of the space shuttle program. Just as we’re beginning to see a return on our multibillion investment in the International Space Station, we’re reduced to hitching a ride to space on rockets from other nations. For the first time since 1962, our country no longer has the ability to put an American into low Earth orbit in a U.S. launch vehicle. How did we reach this point? Did we forget that investing in space creates high-tech, high-wage jobs and that it helped bring us computers? Did we forget the power of a bold mission — like going to Mars? One day humans will reach Mars, but the odds are growing that America won’t get there first. I hope I’m wrong.

American businesses and workers need rigorous enforcement of international trade rules. Unfair trade practices must end. We need Congress to pass the free-trade agreements that are pending, as well as to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. Ex-Im loan guarantee programs are crucial for the competitiveness of U.S. exporters.

Finally, we need significant new investments in public infrastructure. To most people, infrastructure means roads and bridges, but let’s not forget our woefully out-of-date air traffic management system. Modernizing that system would create jobs, stimulate the economy, improve the environment, promote energy independence and make a struggling airline industry profitable so it can grow and add jobs. A modernized air traffic system would make all airplanes up to 15 percent more efficient. 

In my lifetime, there have been three major strides in transportation: the first and second were the Interstate Highway System and GPS; the third was global commercial air travel. I think the fourth great stride could be a space based air-traffic management system — an interstate highway system of the sky. I was pleased that in his speech last week, President Obama recommended funding for Next-Gen Air Traffic Management. We now need a commitment and a firm timetable for completion. Much like the Grand Coulee Dam, the payback for America would be significant and lasting.

Albaugh is president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.