Near the end of the trade days at this year’s Farnborough Air Show, I came to understand something about it and international events like it.
For as long as I’ve been reporting on international air shows (which, at 18 years, isn’t very long by air show standards), the people who attend them and organize and pay for the exhibits that compose them have complained. There are too many of them, goes the common gripe, and it is too expense to travel to and exhibit and entertain at them. At the last Farnborough two years ago, in fact, officials of the then-organizers, the Society of British Aerospace Companies, said the group was considering whether the show was needed and desired by the aerospace industry.
Their answer obviously was, “Yes.” The society turned over the planning and execution of the biennial event to a new organization, Farnborough International Ltd., that could focus on those tasks without the distraction of the society’s trade association duties. The new team added exhibit and chalet buildings (including a massive three-chalet setup of Bell Helicopter and its parent, Textron, that dominated the main entrance and upped the ante for AgustaWestland, which had staked out a commanding position for 2004’s show). It also expanded the show’s Business Aircraft Park, operated during the show’s first two days.
The changes paid off, for the organizers reported this year’s was one of the biggest Farnboroughs in recent memory. Trade show attendance from July 17 through 21 was reported to be up to 140,000 from 133,000 in 2004. Visitors on the public days that followed were reported to have increased by 20,000 over the 2004 air show, to 130,000.
The organizers claimed 1,480 exhibitors (up from 1,240 in 2004) took part from 35 countries. About 75 defense delegations (up from 42) attended from 43 countries, along with 40 civil aerospace delegations from 15 countries.
The show did benefit from timing that made it more vibrant. Bell and its partner Boeing were pushing the V-22, making its first Farnborough visit, to international customers. Bell also was promoting its new 429 light twin and the X-Hawk “fancraft” it is developing with Israel’s Urban Aeronautics. Also, AgustaWestland and Sikorsky took the wraps off their contenders for international armed helicopter competitions, the AW149 and the Battlehawk. It didn’t hurt that Airbus’s massive A380 was able to do genuine flight demonstrations at the show. (Its flights at the Paris Air Show last year were restricted to a gear-down configuration.)
Yet the air show coincided with a stifling heat wave in the London area. This July turned out to be the hottest July and the hottest month on record in the United Kingdom. July 19, smack dab in the middle of Farnborough’s trade days, set the record for the U.K.’s hottest July day (logged as 36.5C [97.3F] at Wisley, just south of Woking about 23 km [14 mi] east of Farnborough on the train line back to London). Now that’s not extremely hot by most standards, but it’s steamy when you’re in suit and tie running to and from meetings in exhibit halls and chalets that aren’t designed for such heat.
Still, people came to Farnborough, and this year I came to understand why. I can’t say when exactly I got it—whether it was while squeezing into a sweaty, smelly double-decker bus for the ride from the Farnborough Main rail station to the show, dashing from one meeting to the next, waiting with a pint in the Royal Swan Inn outside the show’s main gate to avoid a crowded bus ride back to the train or wondering how a threatened rail strike might foul the week’s end.
But the day after that record heat, I realized that the people are the reason people still come to air shows like Farnborough and why folks at every level of industry will continue to come. You can go from one chalet or exhibit stand to the next and, in the course of a day or two, speak face to face with a long list of people with whom you’ve been trying to do business for months or more. An international air show like Farnborough is simply a target-rich environment that no phone or video or Internet link is ever going to replace, despite the perennial grumbling.