by Will Schreiber

Birds, Planes, And COVID’s Chokepoint

On January 22, 1970, a Pan Am Boeing 747 touched down at Heathrow for the first time.1 It was the 747’s first commercial flight. At the time, British Airways had 11 of the jumbo jets on order.

I’ve always wanted to ride on one. I’m too late.

British Airways announced yesterday they’re retiring their entire 747 fleet. Permanently. Its cousins are also in trouble: the double-decker A380 is grounded worldwide.

Landing slots at Heathrow are scarce. In 2016, Oman Air bought a single morning slot from Air France for $75 million. So while the 777, A340, and 787 use less than half the fuel per passenger to fly, airlines need jumbo jets to maximize passenger throughput.

Nowadays double-deckers are merely a waste of fuel. Just like a species facing an extinction event, the 747 got wiped out by an economic chokepoint.

Intelligent-designers often cite gaps in the archaeological record as evidence against natural selection. If evolution inched along slowly, they argue, where are the fossils of almost-humans, and almost-almost-humans, and almost-almost-almost humans? Shouldn’t we find skulls of humans with tiny eyes, slightly-less-tiny eyes, all the way up to regular-sized eyes?

But evolution doesn’t crawl along in a straight line. Adaptation happens slowly, and then all at once. Chokepoints force the “all at once.”

For example, birds in Britain and Denmark have been under attack by asphalt for a century. In Britain, it’s popular to load birdseed into birdfeeders and place them in gardens. Not so in Denmark. Within 40 years, the beaks of British birds have grown 1-2mm longer than their Danish counterparts.2

For millennia the beaks have stayed the same. And then asphalt, in a mere half century, forced British bird beaks to grow up to 10% longer.

Business follows the same pattern. Innovation prods along slowly. And then one day the economy’s equilibrium gets punctured.

We are in one of those economic chokepoints. The 747 and A380 are collateral damage.

What else is facing evolutionary death because of COVID?

It might be better to invert that question. What types of businesses will survive despite COVID? What traits do those businesses have that will spread like memes throughout the economy?