Steve Jobs with iPhone

Where's the iPlane?

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the late Steve Jobs. One thing that strikes me is how strange it sounds to precede his name with “the late.”  Another is how few people like him are running companies today. I believe the number might be approximately…zero.

Certainly, business aviation is among the many fields that could benefit from a dose of Jobs’ thinking. That’s not to say there’s no innovation in this industry now. On the contrary, cockpit technology has advanced dramatically, as have passenger amenities, which these days often include onboard Wi-Fi and cutting-edge entertainment systems. Many BBJs and ACJs have amazing, home-like cabins and, on the other end of the scale, VLJs are offering a new market segment at a new price point.

But business jets are still business jets. I'm not sure we’ve quite seen anything that reinvents a category the way iPods, iPhones and iPads did.

Perhaps one reason is that the manufacturers still spend lots of time listening to customer focus groups, then working to deliver what passengers say they want. To get really ahead of the pack, Steve Jobs believed, you can’t do that; instead, you have to challenge brilliant designers to figure out what customers will want before they even have a clue that they’ll want it.

You also have to focus relentlessly on detail (down to the last screw, hinge and rivet) and strive to make everything as beautifully simple as possible–-a task that is itself far from simple. My home phones and even my coffeemaker came with lengthy manuals that I find myself having to refer to periodically. My much more sophisticated iMac arrived with one well-hidden power button and no manual at all. It didn’t need one. We’ll probably never reach quite that level of simplicity in cockpits, but more steps in that direction where cabin technology and amenities are concerned might give us something a little more iPlane-like.

Come to think of it, we can already point to one business jet that sort of qualifies as an iPlane-–Jobs’ personal Gulfstream V, which was a gift to him from Apple’s board (note to my company’s board: I could use one, too). Jobs didn’t imagine it from scratch the way he did some Apple products but he did spend more than a year customizing the interior and, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson, drove the designers crazy with his attention to detail. His starting point was the jet owned by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who said, when Jobs’ jet was finished, “I looked at his airplane and mine, and everything he changed was better.”

Many of those changes were small. For example, Jobs didn’t like the fact that a door between cabins on Ellison’s jet had separate open and close buttons; he insisted that they be replaced with a single button that toggled. And he didn’t like stainless-steel buttons, so he had all of them replaced with brushed-metal ones.

A little obsessive? Sure. But I’ll bet that airplane is really something.

(Photo: Matthew Yohe)