Every two years, the cream of aviation gravitates to the Farnborough Airfield, southwest of London, to hawk, gawk, buy or just bathe in the beauty of flying machines. This year's show may also serve as a gauge of the global economy.
This week-long air extravaganza now takes place at Farnborough in Hampshire, and attracts nearly 200,000 gawking visitors, besides buyers and sellers. The show is now produced by a subsidiary of the Aerospace Defence Security group. It now exists as a really big open-air showroom to tempt potential customers, investors and other end-users with the newest in military and civilian craft.
Together with its rival, the Paris Airshow, Farnborough has become a key moment for the international aerospace industry to announce new developments, take orders and allow thousands of spectators to drool over the biggest, fastest, newest planes and their related hardware.
The show itself began on Sunday as rival manufacturers Boeing and Airbus started to lock-up orders from the world’s airlines. Following Boeing’s UK debut of its (much-delayed) 787 Dreamliner over the weekend, Boeing also announced a $9.1 billion order for 30 777-300ERs from Emirates Airlines, as well as GE Capital Aviation Services’ order of 40 737-800s for another $3 billion. This has to be good news for the American aircraft manufacturer – and for those people who keep a nervous watch on employment statistics in America.
Boeing CEO Jim Albaugh said that, despite continued global economic uncertainties, the outlook for the recession-battered aircraft market was now turning more positive. Earlier, Boeing had predicted a $3.5 trillion market for new commercial planes over the next 20 years, as air carriers would eventually order more than 30,000 new passenger aircraft and 740 freighters in the next two decades. Albaugh added, “The market is clearly coming back and I feel very confident about how we are positioned to regain and retain leadership in this business.”
Guy Hachey, CEO of Canada’s Bombardier Aerospace, concurs. He told the BBC, “For both our segments – business and commercial aircraft – we’re starting to see signs of recovery.” And Damien Lasou, aerospace analyst with Accenture adds, “I expect to see confirmation that the industry is back in growth mode. Optimism is back.”
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But some say the leading, established plane-makers indicate they might see orders slow again if world economies face a double-dip recession, even as they must also deal with growing threats from aircraft manufacturers in places such as Canada, China and Russia. And not everyone agrees that the market is all future sweetness and light. Given those double-dip recession fears and with the words “austerity” and “spending cuts” on the lips of officials around the world, defence companies continue to have fears about the future of government spending in the defence sphere. “There is only one thing on everyone’s lips and it’s ‘cuts’,” says Howard Wheeldon of BGC Partners.
But back on the plus side, Emirates Air’s Boeing order comes just a few weeks after its biggest-ever single civil-aircraft order – an $11 billion contract for Airbus A380 “superjumbos”. In an obvious competition with Boeing, Airbus also announced the US group, the Air Lease Corporation, will pay $4.4 billion for 51 A320s Aeroflot is to purchase 11 A330-300s, and GECAS has signed an order for 60 additional A320s.
Boeing and Airbus both have new aircraft on display at Farnborough. Boeing’s spotlight is on its lean, green flying machine “the Dreamliner”. The first versions of this hi-tech composite plane are supposed to be delivered this year. However, it is now coming on line two years after it was scheduled to be available and it is only on static display at the air show this year. Meanwhile, Boeing is trying to claim bragging rights with its new Phantom Eye hydrogen-powered, unmanned spy plane, a craft that can fly at almost 20,000m for four days straight.
Over in the other corner, Airbus’s A350 XWB, slated to be the direct competitor to the Dreamliner, is also on static display, but it will not actually fly until 2013. For Airbus, its big draw now is probably its A400M military transporter. However, this plane too, is running years late and billions of euros, pounds, dollars, punts, renminbi, yen, whatever over budget. As recently as the beginning of the year, the plane was about to be cancelled if a variety of international cost-sharing/cost-defraying deals weren’t signed. Although the details are still vague, tentative deals with various governments were finally signed in March, keeping the plane on the active development and production side of things.
And for the Luke Skywalker in us all, Airbus showed off its vision of air transport in 2050 with a “concept plane” that is an ultra-long, slim winged, super-green craft. It has a U-shaped tail and offers systems that support intelligent morphing, self-cleaning seats and see-through walls providing a 360° view of potential tyre, engine and wing failures.
Meanwhile, diversified American defence firm, Raytheon, showed off an anti-aircraft laser that apparently can wipe out those pesky, irritating unmanned drones and rockets.
The Farnborough Airshow – actually its predecessor, the annual RAF Airshow – began in 1932 with a display of aircraft from 12 different British manufacturers. Not surprisingly, the airshow took a break during the Second World War as manufacturers and customers found an alternative way to demonstrate, field test or purchase the newest model aircraft.
After the war, the show resumed and moved to its current location, approximately 50km south west of central London. Not too surprisingly, the headquarters of the UK’s principal aerospace firm, BAE Systems (and we know those folks pretty well here in South Africa, don’t we?) is also based in Farnborough.
In 1962 the show started taking international exhibitors. Most recently, former Soviet bloc exhibitors have come to the big party at Farnborough as well. This show now alternates with the Paris Air Show and takes place the same year as the Berlin Air Show.
The Farnborough Airshow is also famous for its plane-spotter tribe of “twitchers” who hang out near the airfield to record their sightings of all the new planes – and the older ones – like birdwatchers with their life lists of avian creatures. Or, as one of those plane-spotter veterans told the BBC, “It’s like fishing. Most of us come to every airshow and we’ve become very good buddies over the years” as they watch the planes fly in, fly around, and then fly away again.
By J Brooks Spector
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