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Paris Air Show: Light Through Europe's Storm Clouds

Howard Wheedon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners

Given the doom and despondency across so many parts of the EU economy and with European governments tumbling over themselves to reverse years of living beyond their means, next week's Paris Air Show at Le Bourget should provide something to cheer.

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Sad though it is for me to say - and particularly with all that wonderful sophisticated military aircraft technology on display - it is best to forget Paris this year being about defense as I doubt that subject will get much of a look in.

The Paris Air Show, for all its brilliance in showing off the world’s best aerospace and defense technology and providing great space for the industry to engage in global networking, will in the end be all about commercial aircraft and the orders that the big boys receive. Just as the others have been. 

For most of what is after all - alongside the Farnborough Air Show in the UK with which it alternates annually - the biggest and most important aerospace show in world, will, I fear, be all about order announcements from Boeing and Airbus.

I doubt that those who enjoy this annual battle will be disappointed either and I would be very surprised indeed had Airbus not had several significant order announcements already hidden up its sleeve.

As things stand right now I am told that Boeing has received far more orders than Airbus so far this year, but don’t believe that that is how it will look by the end of Paris Air Show week.

I suspect that the real point is that Paris will show off just how well the commercial aircraft industry has recovered on the back of how the airline customers themselves have recovered.

Technology that will hopefully reduce fuel usage, reduce the reliance on traditional sourced fuels, reduce aircraft weight and potentially improve operating efficiency is the new order of the day. And it’s coming too, be it in alloys, plastics or material that actually grows.

Engine makers such as Rolls-Royce, GE and United Technologies' Pratt & Whitney subsidiary will all be busy showing off the latest ideas that they have on this front whilst Airbus, Boeing and others will be attempting to demonstrate why, notwithstanding the various development problems each has had, their newest generation planes - the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, are all that they are cracked up to be in terms of cost saving operational efficiency. I doubt that either company will disappoint.

Paris Air Show 2011 - A CNBC Special Report

As someone who has spent the best of a lifetime putting defense aerospace on a pedestal over and above commercial I can say that I dislike the manner in which the so-called race between Boeing and Airbus dominates big trade shows like Paris seemingly at the expense of everything else. But there we are – no use throwing straws to the wind and with no more toys left to throw out of the pram there is nothing left to do but to grin and bear it.

Sure, defense will get a look in when questions over tanker refueling aircraft are raised, when the current position of the A400M development is discussed, when aircraft like Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are discussed.

But for now with defense cuts the only thing on most people's lips and with the air of excitement on defense probably restricted to potential exports to countries less exposed to the economic downturn, the defense sector will probably not provide exciting news for Paris delegates next week.

The Paris Air Show will be exciting of course – it always is, no matter whether it is dominated by Boeing and Airbus or not. The importance of networking by industry and of all that brings should never be lost on those looking for reasons why shows like this still exist.

Paris, just like Farnborough, is a place to show off rather than gloat. For small and large, for thick and thin, large and stout there will be something there for everyone. And hopefully if the past is anything to go by new ideas and partnerships will be born whose benefits will grace Paris and Farnborough Air Shows decades from now.

And what will be the hot debate? Will it be questioning whether the Boeing 787 will arrive at its first customer later this year, whether the A350 XWB will face some delays, whether Boeing will replace the venerable 737 - which is after all still the best selling aircraft of all time - how the A320-NEO will do, how Bombardier and Embraer fare down in the smaller narrow body market?

All will feature, of course, along with questions for Airbus on long term A380 success and so on. I doubt that the longer term threat to the likes of Boeing and Airbus from China, Russia and elsewhere will be hidden under the Paris carpet either.

A bit of everything can be expected, then, together with a touch of debate on aircraft subsidies thrown in for good measure. The bottom line though is that unlike two years ago, this Paris will be a toast to recovery and justified success of an industry that has more than nine lives.   

Howard Wheedon is Senior Strategist at BGC Partners