The Future of Flying: A View from Farnborough

All eyes are turning to the London Olympics—but for people in the aerospace industry, Britain’s biggest event this summer is the Farnborough International Airshow. At this event (the 48th iteration of the biannual show run by Britain’s defense and aerospace trade group, ADS), I mingled among tens of thousands of trade delegates.

The global aerospace industry appears to have overcome the effects of the global economic crisis. The floor space available at this year’s exhibition was sold out, with hundreds of exhibitors from 43 countries showing off their wares. Most trades occur in the civil aerospace market. Airbus and Boeing are two industry superpowers that have long battled to outsell each other in this Hampshire town. Boeing gained the main headline at the end of the first day, with a large for deal for its new 737Max aircraft, reportedly worth U.S. $7.2 billion.

“Despite rising oil prices, dissipating finance options and falling defence budgets, 2012 might well prove to be yet another record-breaking year for the industry.”

The Canadian pavilion was sizable, with 300 delegates and no shortage of aggressive advertisement (as befits a county that sends four-fifths of its aerospace production abroad). Bombardier, the Montreal-based company, is bound to earn over U.S. $1 billion for 15 of its new C-series passenger jets. The Bombardier aircraft is scheduled to have its first flight later this year, and will be competing with at least three other designs (including the 737Max) for an important market gap that falls between smaller executive jets and the huge planes of Airbus and Boeing. Canada’s National Research Council was in the news as well, now that its research (on topics such as aircraft icing) has been directed towards more ‘commercial outcomes’.

Much attention was grabbed by full-size replica of the Virgin Galactic VSS Enterprise, the passenger-carrying suborbital spacecraft, as well as various unmanned (i.e. remotely piloted) systems. The military aviation side of the event had its share of star products, but they did not exactly shine, since many governments are looking for ways to reduce defence expenditures.

Disappointingly, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Canada’s slated next fighter jet, did not appear at this year’s show (though the full-size mock-up, well-known to Canadians, did); however, but its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, organized a media event centered on the furtive aircraft’s pilots. The company also enthusiastically drew attention to its history. One of its business directors took the opportunity to detail the qualities of the F-16, the ‘fourth generation’ fighter jet bestseller, which Ottawa short-listed the last time it sought to buy a fighter in 1978. So lucrative is this aircraft that even Boeing appears to be chasing support and upgrade contracts.

Another disappointment to flying aficionados was a static-only appearance of the Airbus A400M military transport aircraft. This was the second time in a row that the giant plane was grounded at a major air show due to engine issues. Designed to provide indigenous airlift capacity for a set of European NATO members, as well as to compete with the more established American transports, the A400 has been the target of exceptional subsidies, including a multi-billion euro bailout in 2010. The UK government improved the program’s image at the airshow by a timely placement of a large order for a set of full flight simulators (to be designed and assembled mostly in the UK).

The airshow is taking place at the time when the United Nations is hosting talks on the first-ever global agreement regulating the arms trade. (That fact goes unaddressed at briefings and themed conferences, even if the UK government is said to be one of the treaty’s champions.) But more than a few Farnborough exhibitors are interested in what is calmly described as the Syria file. A Russian official thus stated on the first day that Rosoboronexport, Moscow’s agency for military transfers, would not deliver fighter jets to the Assad regime at the moment. He said nothing about attack helicopters, anti-aircraft systems and other military wares that Damscus has ordered in recent years (at least U.S. $2 billion worth of arms contracts).

As I am writing this, announcements of many big and small trades are slowly trickling into the airshow’s media center. The demand for flying is increasing: one thousand new aircraft are being produced every year, and 2011 airliner backlog stood at 9,556 units. Despite rising oil prices, dissipating finance options and falling defence budgets, 2012 might well prove to be yet another record-breaking year for the industry. And its long-term prospects are even better: the widespread expectation is that the number of mainline passenger jets will double to over 30,000 by 2030. Significant growth is predicted in the same period for business and regional jets as well as for commercial helicopters, adding extra trillions of U.S.dollars to the already extra-large global aerospace market.

Compared to the 2010 show, I was told by seasoned airshow-goers, there appears to be less talk of ‘sustainability’ (i.e. adapting to rising passenger numbers while cutting carbon emissions). And yet it is difficult not to think about climate change while the world experiences all sorts of abnormal weather. Britain, for example, has had the dampest June on record, with still more rain expected to lash down for the remainder of July.

Historically, Farnborough and Le Bourget in Paris have alternated as hosts to the globe’s premier air jamboree. If the Asia-Pacific is indeed the future of aerospace, however, many exhibitors might eventually find themselves more at home in Bangalore, Singapore, and the airfields of Guangdong and the Gulf.

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