Aviation, Electricity and the Miracles of Business

April 15, 2014

We Americans are a demanding group.

Even when we are surrounded by miracles of technology and innovation, we are rarely satisfied.

We expect our lights to turn on without delay. We expect our cell phones to work perfectly. We want high speed internet, an abundant supply of safe food, and fuel efficient cars.



That’s certainly our right. We work hard, after all, and it’s our demanding nature that often fuels innovation and makes life better for everyone. But it’s sometimes helpful to take a step back and ponder the sheer complexity of the products and systems that we rely on every day.


I was reminded of this over the last two weeks when I attended a pair of events sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.


The 13th Annual Aviation Summit on April 3 was a chance to hear from executives representing one of the largest and most complex industries in the world. It occurred to me during the day-long session that the aviation industry was pulling off major miracles on a daily basis, yet remained one of the most maligned entities in America.


The aviation industry has gotten some attention recently following news of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Like many people around the world, I’ve been drawn to the story because it’s so unusual. Planes rarely crash. They never just disappear.


Here’s an industry that moves tens of thousands of people around the globe each day, almost always without incident or delay. The basic logistics of aviation are hard enough. But the industry faces other challenges outside its control. There are high fuel costs and regulations, and taxes that increase the cost of every ticket.


The flying public, meanwhile, has been increasingly raising its expectations, with calls for more flights, enhanced services, faster security procedures and lower costs.


It might help us to reflect on a routine from the comedian Louis CK, in a bit that's been dubbed “Everything is Amazing, But Nobody’s Happy.” 

"You're flying!" he said during an appearance with Conan O'Brien. "You're...you're sitting in a chair. In the sky!"

A new video featuring two elderly women delighting in flying for the first time is another reminder of what we take for granted.


Consider also the industry that works to deliver electricity to our homes.

On April 8, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and Institute for 21st Center Energy hosted Anthony Alexander, the president and CEO of FirstEnergy, an electric company in Ohio.


Alexander is ultimately responsible for electricity service in much of the Midwest and portions of the Mid-Atlantic. That’s no small feat, when you think about how much electricity we consume every day to heat our homes, light our bedrooms, and charge our iPhones.


One could argue that Alexander has enough to think about.


But these days, it’s not enough to just deliver power. He must also react to changes in energy policies, with a growing call to move away from coal toward renewables.


He must think about the growing supply of natural gas and its impact, while also keeping an eye on the future of nuclear.


Oh, and why not throw the occasional Polar Vortex or a Hurricane Sandy into the mix for good measure?


We demand a lot from our companies, and they rise to fulfill our desires most of the time. But next time you turn on your lights or fly from San Francisco to New York, don’t assume it’s simply magic. There's a lot of hard work and ingenuity behind it.