It didn’t bode well that I arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport simultaneously with several other flights from who knows where. Because of that unfortunate coincidence, I had more than an hour to study the scuffed, cranberry colored, vaguely floral-patterned carpet of the arrivals hall as we pressed inevitably onward in the serpentine customs queue. Two years before, I had careened through the Farnborough Airshow on a jet lag-induced mental bender that subsided only days later over scones and tea at an Irish country house. I wanted this trip to be different.
What a relief: the eightyish climate in London offers sanctuary from the oppressive, triple-digit blanket hanging over Washington, D.C. Proper timing and execution by myself and Joe Milroy, our international sales manager, puts us on the 8:10 train from Waterloo station to Farnborough Main with that most cherished of prizes — a seat. Our luck holds (most of the time) on the double decker shuttle bus from the train station to the airfield. Down the spiral staircase from the upper deck, a short walk to the gate, a bar-code swipe, baggage scan and magnetometer later and we’re in, dodging waves of temps hawking three different show dailies. All relatively painless.
Was this comfortable pace a good sign for the industry, though? As I suspected from our easy commute, attendance on trade days was down about 8 percent from 2008, numbering 120,461 visitors, according to airshow organizer Farnborough International Ltd.
The record-breaking $89 billion in firm orders and options announced at Farnborough 2008, spearheaded by high-flying entities from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, belied the deepening global recession but made for a brief bubble of enthusiasm. “Showy signing ceremonies at major air shows are the preferred method of airframers and their customers,” I sniffed in a later column. “But I can recall nothing similar for cancellation announcements.”
Farnborough this year logged just $47 billion in new aircraft orders — if that number means anything — mostly for narrowbody airliners and mostly from lessors like Steven Udvar-Hazy’s fledgling Air Lease Corp., which ordered 54 Boeing 737-800s, 51 Airbus A320s and A321s, 15 Embraer E-190s and 10 ATR 72-600 turboprops.
“Leasing companies … generally buy at the bottom of the cycle as a means of extracting the maximum concessions from the manufacturers while scheduling deliveries for the near peak of the market, when lease rentals will be at their highest,” reported our sister publication, Aircraft Value News. Nevertheless, “the orders are significant and reflect a confidence that the recovery is real and sustainable, however fragile it may currently appear.”
This year’s marquee aircraft, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A400M military transport, added panache but left questions in their wake. Days before Farnborough, Boeing said flight-test delays may push first delivery of the Dreamliner to launch customer All Nippon Airways from later this year into 2011. After the airshow, reports circulated that troubled Dubai Aerospace Enterprise, one of the aforementioned high-flyers, had cancelled orders for 15 787s and 10 777-300ERs, as well as for Airbus A350XWBs and A320s, dating to the 2007 Dubai Airshow. The four-engine A400M made its U.K. debut amid continued unrest by partner nations over supporting the over-budget, off-schedule behemoth. The seven European countries in March had cobbled together an agreement to rescue the program.
Lockheed Martin, which scaled back its presence at Farnborough by half, defended the program viability of its F-35 Lightning II, the marquee aircraft that was not at the airshow. With concern over cost overruns and delays mounting, Tom Burbage, the company’s executive vice president and general manager of F-35 program integration, assured that “recapitalization of fighter-aircraft programs is a high priority. We see no erosion of support” in the United States.
And Lockheed Martin had some well-timed good news to share. Three days earlier in Ottawa, the Canadian government had announced a $9 billion order for 65 F-35s, one of that country’s largest military procurements. At this point, Burbage said, all nine original buyer nations are “still in the circle.”
Bill Carey is the editor in chief of Avionics Magazine. He can be reached at 301-354-1818 or [email protected].