Paris Special

There may not be many all-new aircraft on show at Paris next week, although the debuts of the Boeing 747-8 and Eurocopter's speedy X3 hybrid concept, as well as the Sun-powered Solar Impulse and Pakistan's home-grown JF-17 fighter, should be enough to keep enthusiasts of flying hardware happy.

But anyone who takes the relatively modest air display as a sign that the world's biggest industry show will be dull has not been following the news. As ever with Paris, it is the stories behind the scenes - negotiations in the chalets and leaks, hints and announcements to the press - that really set the agenda for the show. And this year, amid signs of an improving global economy, there will be no shortage of talking points and market activity.

Paris static
© Ernoult


Chief among these is what Boeing will announce about its future narrowbody strategy. Since rival Airbus's decision to re-engine its A320 as the A320neo, speculation has been rife that Seattle will have to respond either with its own re-powered 737, or an all-new narrowbody. The latter option would be much more ambitious, expensive, longer-term and riskier. The reward could be a quantum leap in the appeal of its single-aisle product. The downside - 787-style delays and another cash hole for Boeing as its competitor continues to ramp up Neo orders. All eyes at Paris will be on Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney, who until now has kept the industry guessing.

Not that Airbus can smugly sit back and enjoy its rival's dilemma. Problems with the 787 have diverted attention from the A350 XWB but, with first flight due next year, Toulouse is reaching the point where any programme glitches will become very evident. In May, Airbus parent EADS admitted that any buffer built into the development timetable no longer existed. Expect an honest appraisal of prospects at Paris from Airbus chiefs.

While the big two battle it out, a new player - at least in one marketplace in which Airbus and Boeing have long enjoyed a duopoly - will be at Paris desperate to convince the world that the CSeries represents a major threat to its rivals' smallest narrowbodies. ­Despite the Braathens' leasing deal early this month, Bombardier's orderbook for its 110/130-seater still looks patchy and several big opportunities have come and gone for new customers to emerge, not least last year's Farnborough air show. Although the Canadian airframer would be reluctant to admit it, no new major commitments for the CSeries at Paris could spell bad news for the programme.

Last year at the ILA Berlin air show Emirates stole the limelight with a mega order for 32 more Airbus A380s. The big three Arabian airlines - Etihad and Qatar Airways as well as the Dubai flag carrier - have in recent years been the headline-grabbers in terms of aircraft purchases. Qatar - which has come close to committing to the CSeries - is likely to come to Paris wielding its chequebook, perhaps for more A380s, while Emirates' ability to surprise should never be doubted. It could add even more superjumbos to its fleet at Paris.

Talking of the A380, orders for the ultra-large airliner as well as the 787 have been slow of late. Airbus and Boeing will be hoping the faltering global economic recovery means airlines beyond the Gulf are ready to shake hands at Paris on deals for the two flagship programmes, sales of which are crucial for both manufacturers to keep cash flowing. Orders for the A380 this year are at a standstill, and the manufacturer is still believed to be some way off the break-even point it must have hoped to have passed by now. After becoming the fastest-selling new aircraft programme ever, 787 sales have also slumped, with net orders this year standing at minus 12 last month.

On the military side, with the crucial US Air Force KC-X contest having gone the Americans' way, we should get some steer on prospects for the respective tanker programmes of Airbus and Boeing. Other competitions are small beer compared with the USAF deal, but are crucial for the credibility of these airborne gas stations. The Italian air force has taken delivery of the first of four delayed Boeing KC-767s, while at Paris Airbus Military will be displaying one of six A330 MRTTs, ahead of delivery to the customer later this year.

With the Libyan theatre now added to Afghanistan and Iraq as a testbed for defence equipment, two of the warplanes that have figured prominently in the former conflict will be appearing at Le Bourget. As well as being co-combatants in Libya, the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon are rivals in India for one of the industry's biggest fighter competitions for some time.

It all makes for one of the liveliest and important Paris shows in many years, on the ground as well as in the air.

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