That Hamburg is the permanent European home of the Aircraft Interiors Expo pays testimony to the city's 30-year pioneering role in the sector - and the local aviation cluster, which handed out its "crystal cabin" awards at May's event, is striving to build on this legacy as it strives to position its hometown as the place for aviation.
A public-private partnership, the Luftfahrtstandort Hamburg aviation cluster was created in 2001 as part of the city authorities' investment to secure a share of the Airbus A380 programme. It has since worked to establish new qualification programmes, develop the industry's links with local research institutions, and pursue opportunities for networking and joint marketing.
Project director Walter Birkhan estimates Hamburg's aviation industry employs 36,000 people, making it the leading job creator in a diversified local economy - even if it has been overshadowed by the city's famous port.
Hamburg may be more famous for its port but its aviation industry employs 36,000. Picture: Airbus
Naturally, local giants loom large in the lives of Hamburg's SMEs. "There are many, of course, which are dependent on Airbus and Lufthansa in this region," acknowledges Hanse Aerospace chairman Uwe Gröning. Meanwhile, the origins of many of Hamburg's engineering companies lie in Airbus's embrace of outsourcing. "They are mainly international companies servicing the entire maintenance industry but in Europe dedicated to Airbus," says Birkhan.
However, with Airbus and OEMs in general forcing consolidation among suppliers - not to mention the challenges brought by risk-sharing and programme delays - the cluster is encouraging local companies to broaden and internationalise their customer bases. As Gröning puts it: "There is more than Airbus in the world."
The internationalisation drive is reflected in the Hamburg cluster's initiation of a European aerospace clusters partnership (EACP) aimed at fostering links between SMEs across the continent.
In 2008, the cluster's own work was recognised when it was named among the winners of the German federal government's "cutting-edge cluster" competition. Victory has allowed it to pursue three major landmark projects: the Airbus-led cabin technology and innovative fuel cell application; Lufthansa Technik's advanced MRO - expanding competence on new aircraft generations; and efficient airport 2030.
Alongside these projects, efforts to build research and development infrastructure have led to the opening of a centre for applied aviation research, known as ZAL, and the Hanseatic Centre of Aviation Training (HCAT). This is intended not just to address the engineer shortage that afflicts Hamburg as it does everywhere else, but also to bring cabin designers into contact with cabin maintenance providers, thereby reinforcing Hamburg's strengths in aircraft interiors, which remains a core area alongside MRO and aviation-related logistics.
More broadly, the cluster aspires to a comprehensive qualification programme spanning vocational training and engineering programmes. To ensure a long-term supply of candidates, university professors have been tasked with composing lectures on "The fascination of flight", geared towards stoking children's interest in aviation. In all areas, co-operation between aerospace companies and academia is encouraged as a means of ensuring that industry's needs are met.
Indicative of this priority, HCAT is overseen by Hamburg's ministry of economics and labour relations, rather than its ministry of education. "We are focusing on the problem that we have demographic change and, at the same time, we have fewer young people interested in physics and mathematics and technical themes, and therefore we have to do a lot together," says Ingrid Schilling-Kaletsch, the ministry employee who oversees the cluster's educational initiatives.
Internationalisation is a watchword here, too. In vocational training, the cluster is pursuing student exchange schemes in France, Spain and Italy, and lobbying governments for mutual recognition of qualifications. Additionally, efforts to develop a transnational aviation master's degree programme are under way, within the "Bologna process" aimed at creating common European educational standards. Hamburg's technical and applied science universities are collaborating with counterparts in Bordeaux, Ostend and Naples toward this end.
Ultimately, a focus on high quality and standards in technology is, as Schilling-Kaletsch puts it, "the only thing Europe can do" to preserve "the little gap" it has over lower-cost regions of the world.