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Boeing-Bombardier spat and geopolitical uncertainties overshadow this year’s Dubai Airshow

Members of the Frecce Tri Colori aerobatic display squad perform an aerial display in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Jasper Juinen | Bloomberg via Getty Images
Members of the Frecce Tri Colori aerobatic display squad perform an aerial display in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The Dubai Airshow has established itself as one of the landmark events of the aviation calendar.

Noted not only for being a bellwether for the state of health of the Gulf airline industry, the show has gained a reputation for yielding big orders for the leading aircraft manufacturers.

High expectations indeed, but will this year's show live up to those? There's good reason to believe that this time around it may not.

For sure there'll still be a buzz about the place but the atmosphere may be somewhat more muted than usual. The manufacturers will be there in force, as you'd expect, showing off their latest kit to tempt the airlines to the negotiating table.

A member of the flight crew sits in the cockpit of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, operated by Qatar Airways, on the opening day of the 14th Dubai Air Show
Jasper Juinen I Bloomberg via Getty Images
A member of the flight crew sits in the cockpit of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, operated by Qatar Airways, on the opening day of the 14th Dubai Air Show

Boeing will be wooing potential customers with its latest version of the Dreamliner, the 787-10 and its smaller 737 MAX, resplendent in the colors of local airline Fly Dubai. Airbus, on the other hand, will be showcasing its competing offers, the state of the art A350 and the A320 NEO family. It will also be highlighting the improvements in payload and economics of its ultra-large A380 "plus" and will be working to secure an order for a number of the upgraded model from Emirates.

The regional manufacturers, including Bombardier and Embraer, will be taking the opportunity to present their wares in the regional jet market, a segment where competition is heating up significantly.

The Gulf region is a key market for airliner sales with major customers led by the "big three" Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad, two large low-cost carriers (LCC), Air Arabia and Fly Dubai and a host of other important national carriers, LCCs and regional players.

So why the potential for the show to be somewhat subdued? Well, on the positive side there are already a large number of orders on the books from airlines in the region. Boeing launched its 777X at the show in 2013, securing substantial orders from the big three. Similarly, Airbus has secured more orders for the ultra-large A380 from the Gulf than for any other region, thanks principally to Emirates.

United Arab Emirates' Air Force Aerobatic Team performs with an Emirates Airline Airbus A380 at the Dubai Airshow on November 18, 2013, in Dubai.
Karim Sahib | AFP | Getty Images
United Arab Emirates' Air Force Aerobatic Team performs with an Emirates Airline Airbus A380 at the Dubai Airshow on November 18, 2013, in Dubai.

These can be added to the hundreds of commitments across the product range for both manufacturers which emanate from the Middle Eastern market. It's not only that order books are solid, but market conditions for the region's airlines have taken a turn for the worse over the last year.

Laptop bans, visa restrictions, a slowdown in the oil industry (a key customer for many local airlines) and market over capacity, have resulted in deteriorating performance for local carriers. Emirates has cut capacity and deferred orders, Etihad has canceled routes and is undergoing a complete strategy review, while Qatar Airways has been hit by the broader sanctions affecting its country. The latter airline is normally a poster boy for Airbus and Boeing with an array of its liveried aircraft usually on display at the show, something which will be missing this year.

On top of this, the current trade spat between Boeing and Bombardier concerning subsidies and tariff barriers is symptomatic of a world now full of geopolitical uncertainties and question marks, many of which are affecting the airlines who normally do business at the Dubai Airshow.

There will be some positive headlines for sure but not at the heady levels of recent years.

John Strickland is the director of airline business strategy firm JLS Consulting. He can be reached at john@jlsconsultancy.com.