Farnborough may lag Paris in air show rankings, but the backing of the US defence giants and three new sector-specific features could give this year's event an edge

Last year, a furious US defence establishment threatened to boycott the Paris air show in protest at France's refusal to back military intervention in Iraq. As it happened, the big guns turned up - Le Bourget is too important an event to ignore and most had put down hefty deposits months before. However - like grumpy party guests - many showed displeasure by leaving early or refusing to join the fun. There were few major announcements from US companies and if you blinked you missed many of the usual phalanx of chief executives who would normally be expected to hold court over the main business days of the show.

This year's Farnborough International - held from 19-25 July at the Hampshire airport - will benefit from the Iraq factor. The US Department of Defense and its key suppliers will throw their weight behind the event to repay the UK for its support in overthrowing Saddam Hussein and give a clear signal to France that national air shows are ultimately political as much as business occasions. Boeing and Lockheed Martin will fly their flagship fighters: the F/A-18F and F-16, while Raytheon's T-6A Texan trainer will also feature in the air display. But the real test of US support will be how many generals and chief executives the Pentagon and its prime contractors send over the Atlantic and how long they stay.

Despite this, an Italian, not a US or UK, company will be the biggest single exhibitor at Farnborough, according to organiser the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC). Finmeccanica - without a "home" air show and keen to deepen its transatlantic ties and reinforce its status as continental Europe's other aerospace giant - will have five aircraft under its banner.

These include three Aermacchis in the static area - the SF260 primary, S211 basic and MB339 advanced trainers, although not the latest twin-turbofan M346 advanced trainer. The Alenia/Lockheed Martin C-27J transport will fly and the ATR 42 from the Alenia- and EADS-owned French regional aircraft manufacturer will also be on show.

Other aircraft in the flying display at time of writing include Boeing's AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter and the Saab/BAE Systems Gripen. The UK will fly one of its BAE Harrier GR7s, while, two years after its 170 regional jet touched down at Farnborough, Embraer will fly its bigger brother, the 190, at an air show for the first time.

The SBAC says the site's 70,000m2 (755,000ft2) of exhibition space is again sold out - with more than 1,300 exhibitors from 38 countries, about the same as in 2002. Deputy director general Trevor Sidebottom expects a similar number of visitors to last time - 30,000 professionals on each of the Monday to Friday trade days, rising to 140,000 over the final weekend, when the show opens to the public. "It's going to be a big show again. We've had a great response," he says.

Although gate receipts and fees from vendors on the Saturday and Sunday boost the SBAC's coffers substantially, the public days are not universally popular with exhibitors, many of which would prefer a focused business-to-business event and react to the arrival of the masses by blocking off their stand or sending home all but a skeleton staff. However, this is a misguided attitude, says Sidebottom. "We're in an industry that is in the public eye and has a global presence. It's an odd stance if you ignore the opportunity to raise the awareness of your company by not manning your stand at the weekend," he says.

No Concorde

Barring any surprises, what Farnborough will lack this year is a headline-grabber, sure to make all the newspaper front pages. Aside from its good fortune of being staged in the centenary of powered flight, last year's Paris saw the swansong of Air France's Concorde with a final landing in front of President Jacques Chirac (fans of the supersonic airliner had hoped in vain that a British Airways version could be brought out of retirement for a final flypast at Farnborough). Next year the Airbus A380's maiden flying appearance will be the air show event of the decade. With the next all-new, big-ticket programmes, such as the Boeing 7E7 and Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, years away from first flight, the next two Farnborough shows are likely to have to make do with the odd regional aircraft variant and the umpteenth flying appearance of fighters such as the F-16 and Gripen.

The SBAC is attempting to address accusations of delivering nothing new by partnering outside organisations to focus on three areas of the industry that have previously played a minor role, if any, at Farnborough. These are business aircraft, motorsport and space. Each will have its own dedicated area of the site.

The SBAC says its Motorsport Valley Pavilion - organised with the Motorsport Industry Association - will demonstrate the "synergies" between aerospace and motor racing and will be the first of its kind at any air show. The 2,000m2 space pavilion - previously Hall 5 - is being run with the UK Industrial Space Committee and the Space Foundation and includes a conference programme on the Wednesday, when NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe and UK science minister Lord Sainsbury will appear.

This time round, Farnborough's attempts to secure the support of the business aviation sector, appear to have been fairly successful, although the show certainly suffers from being held two months after the fast-growing annual European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (EBACE) in Geneva. Rather than attempt to compete with EBACE as a platform for major industry announcements, the SBAC is pitching its business aircraft park - next to the BAE Systems building - as an opportunity for suppliers to meet customers in an area fenced off from the main show site.

Business aircraft

The park will only operate from Monday to Wednesday so exhibitors do not need to have their aircraft out of service for too long, says the SBAC. The area will be hosted by TAG Aviation, operator of the Farnborough airport. Twenty aircraft will be on display, including Bombardier's Challenger 300, Global 5000 and Learjet 40; Dassault's Falcon 900EX; and Embraer's Legacy business jet. Regional aircraft will also be sited in the business park, including the AvCraft Dornier 328Jet, Bombardier CRJ700 and Q400, and Embraer 170. However, Cessna and Gulfstream will not be exhibiting.

Since 11 September 2001 security at air shows has constantly been under scrutiny. It has been a case of finding a balance between making sure everyone feels - and is - safe, and checks so rigorous that exhibitors and visitors are inconvenienced (at this year's Asian Aerospace in Singapore the police's practice of stopping and interviewing the occupants of every car approaching the site, creating long traffic jams, came in for heavy criticism). Sidebottom believes Farnborough - which pays the local Hampshire force to police the event - has got it right. Armed police will be on duty, but US companies are understood to have been banned by Hampshire's police chief from bringing in their own armed security guards. "You have to be very vigilant. We have a duty of care," Sidebottom says. "But you have got to remember that the person coming in is your customer."



Source: Flight International