Clouds over Paris Air Show Putting a Brave Face on the Aviation Crisis

The prospects for the aviation industry are bleak, but executives are trying to put a positive spin on the situation. At the Paris Air Show, champagne and fighter jets are intended to distract attention from the lack of orders.

By in Le Bourget, France


The start of the Paris Air Show was as grim as the situation for the aviation sector: gray skies with persistent rain, combined with pessimistic forecasts for aircraft production and passenger numbers.

On top of everything, the show, which takes place every two years at Le Bourget Airport just outside Paris, has also been overshadowed by the tragic accident involving Air France flight 447, which crashed over the Atlantic Ocean on June 1. Hence the 2009 show, which marks the 100th anniversary of the exhibition, began Monday marked by a deep depression -- both meteorological and emotional.

It is not only a perceived downturn but a tangible crisis -- as a glance at industry figures confirms. After an estimated global loss of $10.4 billion (€7.5 billion) in 2008, the International Air Transport Association expects airlines to make a loss of $9 billion in 2009. And the reality could be even worse: The pessimistic scenario doesn't take into account the consequences of a possible global swine flu pandemic, a new rise in fuel prices or a possible CO2 tax.

Airlines are "flying into the teeth of a fierce head wind," James McNerney, CEO of US-based aircraft manufacturer Boeing, told shareholders recently. Louis Gallois, his counterpart at Boeing's main rival, the European aerospace corporation and Airbus parent company EADS, put things more cautiously. "For 2009, I would say that the impact will be moderate," he told shareholders at the end of May.

Airbus could derive a little optimism by the fact that it was ahead of Boeing in orders taken at this year's air show. By Thursday, it had chalked up orders worth around $6.5 billion, while Boeing had only managed one order worth a mere $153 million. However even Airbus's orders were small compared to previous years.

Focusing on a Glorious Past

The only option, it seems, is to try to spread a bit of optimism. This is exactly what the PR people working for the air show's around 2000 exhibitors are doing; at the exhibition this week they tried to buoy the mood with the help of free champagne and canapés. Meanwhile the subject of the Airbus crash is largely being avoided -- after all, as industry insiders point out, the investigation into the causes of the crash is still ongoing.

With the future looking so bleak, the organizers of the Le Bourget show have preferred to focus their attention on the industry's glorious past. Exactly 100 years ago, France's aviation pioneers put on the first "salon de la locomotion aérienne." Balloons and airships floated under the glass dome of the Grand Palais in Paris, while on the ground around 100,000 visitors admired flying machines made of metal, wood and canvas. The highlight of the 1909 show was the flimsy flying box Blériot XI, with which the French aviation pioneer Louis Blériot had crossed the English Channel two months earlier. The prominent piece of aviation history is also on show at this year's fair.

And it seems as if visitors' enthusiasm for the myth of aviation is undiminished. At the show, glittering business jets stand next to angular matte black interceptors, almost close enough to touch. Giants like the cargo version of the Boeing 777 are parked next to small reconnaissance drones, complete with cameras and infrared sensors.

Whereas at the beginning of the week industry VIPs with multi-colored badges made the rounds and imposing men in uniforms and diplomatic dignitaries were chauffeured around the site in limousines or electric golf carts, hundreds of thousands of visitors -- mostly male -- have now descended on the show, which is open to the public from Friday until Sunday. High-tech enthusiasts get photos of themselves taken in front of military helicopters or historic passenger planes while others inspect sports aircraft such as the LH-10 Ellipse ("only 320 kilograms with a 100 horsepower engine") or the APM 40 Simba ("constructed entirely of carbon fiber") with an expert gaze.

'C'est Cool'

Visitors' curiosity is piqued by the weapons on display, such as trucks equipped with rockets and radar or 20-millimeter cannon which are apparently "discrete" and offer "high firepower." The interest even applies to parts suppliers, whose bolts, ball bearings and plugs glitter in illuminated display cases reminiscent of those found at expensive Parisian jewelers. "C'est cool," enthused a student from a French aviation academy who was admiring a section of honeycomb fuselage during a visit to the show on Wednesday.

For high-tech fans, the highlight of the show is in the early afternoon, when every day passenger and cargo planes circle over Le Bourget in demonstration flights. Jet fighters like Dassault Aviation's Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon or Alenia Aermacchi's M-346 take off from runway 03. Heads and cameras get directed at the sky as the planes perform acrobatic stunts such as somersaults, rolls and loops. The sound of clicking digital cameras gets drowned out by the roar of the afterburners.

Full Order Books at Airbus

Airbus celebrated its recent 40th birthday with a flight of honor by a fleet of Airbus aircraft over Le Bourget, culminating in a flyby by the giant A380. "A fantastic machine -- our aircraft for the future," comments one Airbus employee who is clearly optimistic about the future of French-German parent company EADS.

The German government also knows the importance of putting a positive spin on things. "The meeting of the 'Airbus ministers' was very satisfactory, as usual," said Jürgen Meyer, head of the German Economics Ministry's technology policy division, during a debate on the European aerospace industry at the prestigious French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). Although he admitted that his ministry did not see the current crisis approaching, he was brave enough to predict that "the crisis may end in 2010."

In light of Airbus's full order books, Meyer surprised his audience with an upbeat prediction: "With such a buffer, Airbus can cope with one, two or even more cancellations." More "mental flexibility" was required, he said.

It seems that the most important thing is to keep one's spirits up. And even the weather seemed to cooperate: The clouds over Le Bourget cleared to reveal a cheerful blue sky -- at least for a while.

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