Farnborough air show preview: global village

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As it does every two years, a small community complete with buildings, streets and its own transport network is emerging on the slope overlooking Farnborough airfield. During the week of 14 July, it will be home to more than 140,000 trade and 16,000 public visitors as the air show celebrates its 60th birthday.

The first Farnborough in 1948 provided a platform for a British aerospace industry emerging exhausted but victorious from wartime and displaying its vision for an age of peaceful deterrence and air travel opportunities for many. Today, Farnborough International is, like the industry itself, a much more global affair, with over 1,500 exhibitors from 39 countries.

farnborough
 © Farnborough International

To mark its anniversary, this year's event will have a retro feel, with flying displays on the last three days of the show featuring types that first appeared in 1948 and iconic aircraft from the subsequent six decades. They include the Avro Vulcan bomber, a Supermarine Spitfire, Fairey Swordfish, Vickers Vimy and Douglas DC-6, which is also 60 years old.

In addition a couple of centenaries will be celebrated during the show. US-born aviation pioneer Samuel Cody made Britain's first powered flight from Farnborough airfield - then an actual grass field - 100 years ago. Meanwhile, Flight International marks its own 100th year of publishing with a VIP reception at the TAG Aviation terminal on the opposite side of the airfield at which we will be announcing the winners of our flightglobal.com poll to find the 100 Greatest aircraft, engines, people and moments from a century of aviation (voting closes on 20 June).

REGIONAL ASCENDANCY

At a time when regional and sector-specific events are on the ascendancy, legacy shows such as Farnborough and Paris - largely based on a concept that dates from the 1940s or earlier and mixing populist appeal with hard business - ought to be creaking with age. The 23 months since the previous Farnborough have seen several new conventions, including the relaunch of Asian Aerospace in Hong Kong against the established Singapore air show, Middle East Business Aviation in Dubai and a number of niche events.

The Dubai air show itself has burgeoned, as has Aero India in Bangalore, reflecting the importance of these regions to the global aerospace economy. Meanwhile, the EBACE business aviation convention in Geneva, held just two months before Farnborough, has grown fourfold in six years as that sector has expanded beyond western Europe into the Middle East and the former Communist bloc. All these make demands on hard-pressed corporate marketing budgets.

There is no denying Farnborough can be hard work. Despite the efforts of the organisers, police and local authority, the impact of tens of thousands of visitors descending on the sleepy dormitory town is crippling, with traffic problems and a lack of local hotels meaning that most international visitors have to commute from central London, a journey that can take well over an hour by car or public transport.

When the temperatures soar, as they did in 2006, the air conditioning in the halls and chalets struggles to cope and walking from one end of the vast site to the other in business garb can be distinctly uncomfortable. If - as is equally likely - it rains heavily, the grassy areas become a quagmire. As at any high-profile air show, security is a necessary irritant, and tempers can fray as queues build at the gates.

For those who like to see aircraft in the flesh, the air displays are stirring and finished product is ultimately what the air show is all about. However, trying to conduct sensitive business negotiations when a MiG-29 is screaming overhead is not easy. And while the major exhibitors like BAE Systems, EADS, Finmeccanica and the US primes compete for attention with large pavilions, the scale of the show means smaller exhibitors can be lost in corners of the large halls where there is little passing traffic.

Yet Farnborough continues to flourish. With every chalet space sold and exhibitor numbers up 5% on 2006, the industry sees the event as a place to do business. The fact is that with a critical mass of big decision-makers and media in attendance, aerospace companies large or small ignore the show at their peril, and, in a global industry, with many programmes involving a network of suppliers on several continents, and international investment companies looking for growing aerospace companies to purchase, Farnborough is more international than ever. Colombia is the latest nation to send a delegation of exhibitors.

COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITIES

After the 2004 show, Farnborough's owner, the Society of British Aerospace Companies, took a long, hard look at the event, with options including turning it into an all-indoor convention with the air display element merged with the Royal International Air Tattoo in Fairford and drastically shortening the seven-day programme.

After surveying exhibitors, however, the format was kept largely the same, with organisation passing to an independent company owned by the SBAC, Farnborough International Limited. With FIL securing a long-term lease of the show site from TAG, which in turn had taken over the freehold of the entire Farnborough airfield from the Ministry of Defence, the new company was charged with developing commercial opportunities outside the biannual show. For that reason, Five, a 4,400m2 (47,400ft2) permanent exhibition facility was opened in 2007. Ultimately, FIL would like Farnborough to become a year-round destination for major conventions and events, one of a handful of such locations in the London area.

BAE will take the whole of Five during the show. It is just one of a series of major infrastructure developments. New glass structures are being erected by Thales and Blenheim Capital Services where the Farnborough International office and show control used to be. Raytheon is taking an area formerly used by the telecommunications providers.

One development of recent years has been companies' use of ever more striking standalone pavilions, instead of the standard chalet blocks. Boeing, Goodrich, GKN, Gripen International, GE Aviation and Northrop Grumman will all go down this route this year, while the UK's third largest aerospace employer Finmeccanica - whose bright red colours are becoming a familiar sight at air shows - is set to make its biggest "brand statement" yet in what it sees as its number two "domestic" market.

Exhibitors making their Farnborough debut include Middle Eastern airports Bahrain and Dubai World Central, but the chalet line will reflect little of the long-rumoured consolidation in the aerospace sector, with Smiths Aerospace (absorbed into General Electric) the only big name to have disappeared and little sign of the speculated mergers involving EADS, Finmeccanica and Thales having advanced.

THREAT FROM EBACE

The success of the annual EBACE convention has long been a threat to Farnborough's ability to entice the big business aircraft manufacturers, but the show has held in there by stressing the importance of the government market to these companies. Farnborough's military credentials have helped, and the proximity of the UK's biggest business aviation airport also lends credibility. Bombardier, Dassault Falcon, Gulfstream and Hawker Beechcraft are among the exhibitors in the business aircraft park, an innovation introduced in 2006 beside chalet row J.

farnborugh business park
 © Farnborough International

Another challenge for the organisers has been keeping the show's momentum going beyond the busy beginning and middle of the week before the public days on the Saturday and Sunday. Once again this year, Friday is International Youth Day, with the emphasis on attracting teenage students to the aerospace sector by giving them an insight into the types of career opportunities available. As well as science and technology and careers fairs, there will be a series of lectures including ones from Virgin Galactic on space tourism, BAE Systems on a century of innovation in British aviation and Wg Cdr Andy Green, the holder of the world land speed record, on his experience of flying. Also taking place will be the International Youth Rocketry Challenge, which provides older school students the chance to design a flying model.

This year's flying display itself contains little in the way of firsts, although Monday will see a flypast of the Lockheed Martin F-22 fresh from its air show debut at the Royal International Air Tattoo, held on 11-13 July at Fairford. Other newish aircraft include the Airbus A380, Alenia Aermacchi M-346 and M-311, Bell/Agusta BA609 tiltrotor and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Also taking part in the air display are the Boeing F/A-18, Lockheed Martin F-16 and RSK MiG-29. In addition, the prototype of the Kestrel JP10 turboprop business aircraft, designed at Farnborough airfield, will fly.

One innovation this year could make it easier for visitors to make the best use of their time in the halls and chalets. An online "dating system" allows users to identify exhibitors by business category and request meetings during the show.

Although this year's Farnborough will be about past glories as well as looking forward, no hard-pressed trade visitor attends for sentimental reasons. Despite its long heritage, Farnborough works because it provides executives with an efficient way of networking, information gathering and doing deals. For a week in July, the focus of the world of aerospace will be on a small town on the Hampshire-Surrey border, many of whose inhabitants are rather indifferent about the attention.


Full coverage at the show will be provided by our show daily Flight Daily News. See flightglobal.com/flightdailynews