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Mon, Jun 16, 2003

Slow Day At Le Bourget

No USAF Brass, No MiGs, Goodbye Concorde

It may well be described as the most somber Paris Air Show since the first one - way back in 1909. French President Jacques Chirac kicked off the opening ceremonies Saturday, presiding over a show that won't feature any of the latest in American military aviation, won't feature any real MiG or Sukhoi aircraft, but does feature a tearful goodbye to the Concorde. It's been a sad, relatively slow weekend at the Paris Air Show so far.

Pentagon Stays Away

Remember that little tiff between Washington and Paris over France's opposition to Operation "Iraqi Freedom"? That's why you'll notice many of the booths and static displays usually reserved for the American military are empty this year.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the military services to stay away from Le Bourget. While defense contractors like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin are represented, their delegations to the Paris Air Show are much smaller than usual. Defense contractors deny there's been any pressure from Rumsfeld to stay away, but then, there is a noticable chill in the air when it comes to displaying their wares at Le Bourget.

Top US military leaders - those with one or more stars on their shoulders - are barred outright from participating at the Air Show. The number of US aircraft sent to Paris has been almost halved - down to six from 11 last year. None of the US aircraft will be involved in aerial displays.

Russia Keeps MiGs, Sukhois Home

Russia, facing the ongoing threat of having its assets seized by a Swiss trading company, refused to send its shining stars to Paris this year. The Swiss company, Noga, says Moscow owes it more than $60 million in a food-for-oil deal that it claims the Russians never made good. At last year's air show in Paris, Noga tried to commandeer MiGs on display in lieu of the money it claims to be owed. This year, the Russians learned their lesson, sending mock-ups, but no flying aircraft to Le Bourget.

In fact, the total number of aircraft on display is 206 at Paris this year, down by 20 over the year before. The amount of exhibitor space has shrunk about five percent compared to years before.

Bright Spots

Perhaps the most notable good news to come out of Paris so far has been the forecasts for 2003-2005 delivered by the CEOs of both Airbus and Boeing commercial production lines. Both Noel Forgeard of Airbus and Alan Mulally of Boeing believe the current slump in air travel will be over by the end of this year. Both expect orders will return to pre-9/11 levels sometime around the end of 2004. Indeed, both manufacturers have a lot of orders to write at Paris, most notably from Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airways. "We will be announcing a major deal at Le Bourget that will substantially increase our fleet," a Qatar Airways spokesman told Reuters last week.

But the good news for Boeing and Airbus is tempered by the open rancor between the two giants. Sunday, Boeing's Mulally called Airbus fiscally irresponsible for not cutting production to meet demand during the current slump. That, said Mulally, will hurt the industry for years to come. Airbus is expected to out-deliver Boeing for the first time this year. The industry's reaction? Big yawn. "Orders at Paris could be a spark but expect a weak summer," said analysts at S.G. Cowen in a research note on Friday, quoted by Reuters.

UCAVs, RJs Take Center Stage

Unmanned aerial vehicles - some of them dedicated to combat - are on display at Le Bourget this year, bolstered by recent successes in Afghanistan and Iraq. In one battle between American and Iraqi forces, "They were able to provide intelligence to the strike force within 15 or 20 minutes," said Cynthia Curiel, spokesperson for Northrop Grumman, prime contractor on the Global Hawk. "I think that's really what has sparked the interest in UAVs, it saves peoples' lives."

"So far, we have not shown alot of things," said Patrick Brunet, a spokesman for Airbus parent EADS's UAV division. "It will change at the Le Bourget (Paris) air show," he said. "EADS wants to reinforce drastically its defence activities to be on a par with its civilian activities like Airbus."

UAVs may be one of only two hot-button items at Le Bourget. "It's the sexy flavor of the month," said Peter van Blyenburgh, president of the European Unmanned Vehicle Systems Association, in an interview with Reuters.

Regional jets, smaller and cheaper to operate, are the other hot-ticket items at Le Bourget. French engine manufacturer Snecma says it's teaming up with Russia's Sukhoi and Boeing to produce a new line of RJs to meet the growing demand. The Associated Press reports they'd come in three basic flavors - 60-, 70-, and 95-passenger models.

Finally, A Tearful Goodbye To Concorde

While most of the Paris Air Show is dedicated to the newest and shiniest in aviation, the opening day of the 45th show featured a loving goodbye to an airplane that inspired the world when it was introduced almost three decades ago. The Concorde is flying west.

The Air France Concorde made its last flight at the Paris Air Show over the weekend, after the airline retired the aircraft last month. British Airways Concordes will be grounded in October. Air France has donated some of its supersonic passenger jets to museums - including the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington.

The Air France Concorde being donated to the museum at Le Bourget taxied through a final "circle of honor" before heading to its final resting place, drawing cheers from the thousands of attendees and tears from some of those who flew the supersonic jet back and forth across the Atlantic.

"In this plane there was a special spirit," said Air France pilot Eric Celerier, 57, who flew the plane from Paris to New York 400 times as first officer. "Anyone working on this plane was an enthusiast - pilots, flight attendants, mechanics."



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