But the idea of one major air show every two years at different venues may not appeal to aerospace executives or local businesses

Scrap the four or five international air shows held every two years and replace them with one biennial event, which cities around the world would bid for like the Olympics. That's the suggestion of one aerospace company chairman, who resents having to dip into a shrinking marketing pot every few months to be at yet another air show. He believes the industry would be better served by a single, massive get-together when genuine new aircraft would be unveiled and major strategic announcements made.

Try telling that to the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC) and the other organisations for whom air shows are not only a way of making lots of money, but a chance to shine on a global industry stage. Try telling it too to the hundreds of thousands of hoteliers, restaurateurs, stand-minders and aisle-sweepers who cash in on the economic windfall every two years.

But although hotels were full, every vacationing student within 50km had a job for a week and there was not a table available in London, this year's Farnborough air show was, in many ways, a flop. Attendances, for the crucial first three trade days, were down by more than a quarter on 2000. The static display was small and familiar; there were few aircraft debuts and significant orders were scarce.

Although there were some headline-grabbers - Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson arriving with characteristic panache in Virgin's launch Airbus A340-600 and the first appearance of Eurofighters in a four-aircraft formation - the show was short on drama.

But does it matter? Air shows serve a very different purpose to decades ago when they were an opportunity for manufacturers to unveil airframes and put never-before-seen military aircraft through their paces. In an age when aircraft designs are eked out over many years through complicated industrial partnerships and negotiations with customers and suppliers, traditional air shows are an anachronism.

What Farnborough offers, however, is an opportunity for business to be done and for exhibitors and visitors to meet customers, suppliers and the press. With everyone squeezed into the same square kilometre, it means executives can achieve in days what would otherwise take weeks of air travel and stays in far-flung hotels. According to the SBAC, while attendance was down, the quality of visitors was high. It was a view echoed by many exhibitors who stated that - while the event lacked buzz - they saw the people they wanted to see.

So how did this year's Farnborough air show move the industry forward? For Eurofighter, the first public display of the four initial production aircraft gave a symbolic boost to the aircraft as it gears up to compete with the Joint Strike Fighter. The changing military threat and leaps in technology marked another advance in the development of unmanned air vehicles and unmanned combat air vehicles. On the civil side, the arrival of the Embraer 170 shows that the regional jet sector is still burgeoning. And while turboprop sales may be flagging, the freighter conversions unveiled for ATR and BAe ATP aircraft points to a possible viable future for the modern-generation fleet.

The show also forced Boeing into a bit of a corner. Determined to project itself as a global aerospace and systems company with an expertise stretching from UAVs to in-flight communications, and facing being overtaken by rival Airbus in the airliner production stakes, senior executives were constantly pressed for progress reports on Sonic Cruiser. The project was unveiled last year as its 747X project was cancelled. Many believe it was a smokescreen to both divert attention from Airbus's A380 - now in production - and its own plans to develop a conventional successor to the 757 and 767. Despite releasing a new image of the concept, signing up several more technical partners and announcing design refinements, journalists left the show no more convinced than before that the project would see the light of day. Reading between lines, Boeing chiefs seemed to be softening the market for an announcement that it has changed tack again on plans for its next airliner project.

Ten months on from 11 September, the civil sector is still in a trough and, even on the military side, pledged increases in defence spending have not yet filtered through to procurement. This was the first Farnborough of the downturn and, like Asian Aerospace in February, it reflected an industry in a holding pattern. For the next big news, we may have to wait 11 months for Le Bourget.

Source: Flight International