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Dubai Air Show Grows In Stature By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

Apache AH Mk1 Helmand-109 Nov 15. Opened yesterday, the 2015 Dubai Airshow will over the five full days play host to at least 70,000 international trade visitors from 60 plus nations. Over 1,000 exhibitors are displaying a vast array of aerospace and defence related products and while the show will as always be dominated by the commercial aviation industry there will I am sure be a much greater focus than hitherto on potential military aircraft sales.

Dubai is today a BIG show in every respect of the word and bears little if any resemblance to the original Arab Air show that was held for the first time in 1986. Dubai and the prominent air show that it holds have grown substantially since then. Today Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates are rightly considered to be one of the most important in the global commercial aerospace and aviation market.

Having thirty years ago set out to put Dubai on the global aviation industry map the Dubai Airshow represents evidence not just of aviation industry success but also of how Dubai has established itself to be one of the most important economies in the Gulf region. The Gulf is also home to the largest and fastest growing set of airlines in the world outside China.

For Airbus, Boeing and some of the smaller commercial aircraft manufacturers the Gulf region represents a large and still growing share of their respective businesses. Airlines in this part of the world know what they want and know exactly where they are going. They continue to seek to expand and with necessary buying power at their elbow they are rarely backward in coming forwards to demand more from the aircraft manufacturers and that they take their demands seriously.

No longer is it a case of an aircraft manufacturer telling an airline in this region what it can have. Today, in the ruthless world of commercial aircraft sales, it is a case of listening to what the airline customer wants, deciding whether it can be delivered and making sure that they can come up with a competitive enough price.

Having moved to Dubai World Central at Jebel Ali from the old Airport Expo site in 2013 and having doubled the amount of exhibition space available in the process the Dubai Airshow 2015 looks set fair to be described the very best ever. However, while it is always difficult to predict, I do not expect to see a repeat of the $200 billion list of order announcements for 400+ new commercial aircraft that emerged during the 2013 show and when the likes of Emirates Airlines, Etihad, Qatar Airways and others ordered new aircraft from Boeing and Airbus rather like confetti. But none of that is to suggest that the aircraft manufacturing industry is doing any more than heading into a temporary slow-down of new orders following several years of frenetic activity.

Although there will undoubtedly be a lot more focus on potential military jet and other defence related sales I doubt that we will see significant orders for fast jets being announced. I expect more emphasis on the space industry this time round mainly as a result of the creation last year of the United Arab Emirates Space Agency and which has apparently already invested well over $5bn in various new space technologies. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles technology will also be very much in evidence as an area that the UAE is determined not to be left behind.

The Dubai Airshow is, as I have already implied, seen by the large commercial aerospace industry players as being one if not the most important of the numerous number of air show events now held around the world. There are in my view too many and at some point something will have to give.

Other countries have followed Dubai’s example of investing in having a big air show event including Singapore which opened its doors for the first time in 2008. Berlin claims to be the oldest airshow with a history going back to 1909 and yet in reality it is a relatively small show and one that some view as struggling. Aero India is another important defence and aerospace industry event as is India Aviation 2016 which will be held at Hyderabad in March next year. They all have something to offer and the best are held in country’s whose own aviation industries are expanding. But for all the new imposters that have entered on the scene none yet are as respected internationally as the alternating Farnborough International and Paris airshow events. For how much longer remains to be seen and to an extent it may well depend on how much the organisers of the two European based shows are prepared to invest in the future?

While many see Dubai as being the most exciting, well located, spacious and modern of all the various global commercial airshow events held in the world Paris and Farnborough continue to enjoy decent attendances from government, military delegations, trade, industry and public alike. But even if Paris just about can, I wonder whether Farnborough International really can be described as being an air show today in the true context of the word? I would say certainly not on the trade days with fewer aircraft on display each year and even few flying. Gone are the days when afternoons at the Farnborough Airshow where full to the brim of fantastic air displays and when on the two public days, thousands of members of the public and air buffs flocked to see them.

And I suppose because potential and existing military and government customers are today far more interested seeing aircraft that they might one day wish to acquire flying in-country there is much less relevance placed than there used to be on the need to see aircraft fly at air displays. The reality is that today Farnborough International and increasingly, the Paris Airshow as well are better described as being aerospace trade shows than they are as being called air shows.

Another important reason why the traditional and mature air show events are being forced to adapt and change if they are to survive is the high cost of not only getting fast military jet aircraft to the shows from far off places but the cost involved in actually taking part in flying displays.

The writing may well be on the wall for the big European airshow events at least from a military aircraft perspective. The 2015 Paris Airshow held at Le Bourget earlier this year is perhaps a good example of what I mean because during the whole show on each day only two fast jet aircraft displays actually took place. The Pakistan Air Force was extremely happy to oblige displaying its JS-17 Thunder military aircraft in the skies over the show and not surprisingly, French aircraft manufacturer Dassault was very quick to take advantage of there being no US, Swedish or other European fast jets taking part in actual flying displays.

In truth and particularly from a military perspective, European airshows are increasingly being perceived as being too expensive to attend and for some, they serve far less of a purpose than they once did. The cost of being at Paris and Farnborough is already seen as being prohibitive by some and it is not just the cost of bringing military and commercial jets over to the show or potentially flying them in displays. Lack of investment over the years is noticeable but it is just as much about the high costs of display stands, hospitality costs plus additional costs in bringing so many staff over and providing hotels that cause some to think twice.

Farnborough will of course be a great success next year and it will I am sure play a big part in the celebration of 100th anniversary of Boeing. Having hopefully displayed for the first time in the UK at the Royal International Air Tattoo during the week before, the hope will be that the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will display at Farnborough International next year as well. But what about following shows, can Farnborough really continue to attract trade and public in numbers that make the show viable or might it not be better to accept that the future is for this to be a trade show as opposed to being an air show?

From a military aircraft display point of view and also from an industry and potentially government perspective I suspect that the Royal International Air Tattoo which is held each year in July provides a much better venue for military and industry to network, discuss ideas and potential and see aircraft fly and within a more informal setting.

Of course, from a commercial aircraft standpoint Farnborough International along with Paris remains the most important European venues in which to show aircraft to potential airline customers, trade and public alike. Berlin may have already had its day but with so many other international venues to choose from I do wonder whether Paris and Farnborough will be able to compete sufficiently well enough in the future to attract the commercial aircraft manufacturers let alone all the airline customers, industry, press and media that make the whole thing work.

In the end it will be up to Paris and Farnborough to demonstrate that they have what it takes and that they are prepared to invest in the future and compete. If not then the future is potentially bleak.

CHW (London – 9th November 2015)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785


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