Rain matches aviation gloom at Paris Air Show

June 15, 2009 5:06:20 AM PDT
Gray, rain-laden skies matched the mood at the Paris Air Show as it opened Monday amid grim times for the aviation industry. Yet Boeing Co. struck a defiant tone, with its head of civil aircraft, Scott Carson, saying Monday that it appears economic conditions have bottomed out and the sector's prospects are robust.

Chicago-based Boeing's defense business plans to compensate for an expected weakening of U.S. military sales through a sharp rise in international exports.

Already reeling from the global recession, the industry gathering near where Air France Flight 447 should have landed only two weeks ago has been shaken by the still-unexplained crash.

Pilots of the Airbus A330 that was flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris did not even have time to make a mayday call before their plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean on May 31, killing all 228 people aboard.

"The aviation community is still under some shock with the severity of this accident," Airbus CEO Tom Enders said.

Investigators have only two more weeks to find the flight data and cockpit voice recorders before the signals emitted by small beacons on the so-called black boxes start to fade. Without them, the cause of the accident may never be fully known.

France's prime minister, Francois Fillon, formally opened the show, touring Airbus displays with French CEOs under a pelting rain. Industry executives from around the world sloshed their way through muddy lots to the Le Bourget airfield.

Canada's Bombardier announced it had won, confirmed and converted a total of 35 orders for its CRJ1000 NextGen jets by Spanish regional carrier Air Nostrum, in deals worth a total of $1.75 billion.

The Paris Air Show is marking its 100th anniversary, although because it alternates every other year with the Farnborough International Airshow outside London, it is only on its 48th edition. It opened to industry on Monday, and then to the public Friday to Sunday.

Despite the gloomy economic climate, organizers expect around 300,000 visitors this year, half of them professionals, about the same as the last show in 2007. More than 2,000 exhibitors from 48 countries are taking part.

The traditional dogfight over orders between rival planemakers Boeing Co. and Airbus SA has been tempered as the world economic crisis forces airlines to cancel or delay plans to buy planes. Tight credit markets have made it more difficult for potential customers to secure financing.

The International Air Transport Association has warned that the world's airlines will collectively lose $9 billion this year.

So far this year, Boeing - which is cutting 10,000 jobs - has taken orders for 73 planes, but with cancellations of 66, the net order intake is only 7 jets.

Airbus - which hasn't announced extra job cuts but had already been cutting payroll in a restructuring program launched in 2007 - has booked fewer orders at 32, but with fewer cancellations has a better net balance of 11 jets.

Still both plane makers are cushioned by order backlogs of around 3,500 planes.

Analysts said they expect a trickle of orders, possibly from Persian Gulf airlines financed by deep-pocketed patrons, or bargain seekers such as no-frills airline Ryanair.

Qatar Airways' head, Akbar al-Baker said the company plans to make "further announcements" at the Paris Air Show, suggesting it could add to plans for more than 200 planes worth over $40 billion in the coming years.

To mark the centennial show, 30 historic aircraft from different aviation epochs will be on display, including a Bleriot XI, a plane shown at the first Paris Air Show in 1909. But few new aircraft will be presented - visitors will have to be content with the first appearance outside Russia of Sukhoi's new Superjet 100.

Airbus and Boeing's newest aircraft, the A400M military transport plane and Boeing's 787 jetliner, won't be making an appearance as both planes are late, dogged by a series of problems.

"We must see how we can stop the hemorrhaging," EADS CEO Louis Gallois said Monday on RTL radio. He called the original calendar "absurd" and too short to properly design and build the A400M transport.

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Associated Press writers Greg Keller, Slobodan Lekic and Laurent Pirot at Le Bourget contributed to this report.

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