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Carr: We Will Always Have Paris

It began modestly in 1908 as an add-on to the Paris Automobile Show.


July 27, 2009
By David Carr

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It began modestly in 1908 as an add-on to the Paris Automobile Show. The inspiration of several handfuls of French aviation pioneers including Louis Blériot, who one year later would become the first aviator to cross the English Channel in a heavier-than-air machine, pocketing a £1,000 prize offered by London’s Daily Mail.

This history of aviation has unfolded on the grounds of the Paris Air Show. Beginning at the Grand-Palais near the Champs-élysées, where the world’s first exhibition devoted exclusively to aircraft took place in 1909, and later at Le Bourget Airport, which has been the show’s permanent home since 1951.

In June, a global aviation industry battered by depressed order books and billions of dollars in losses limped to the 48th edition of Salon International de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace Paris to celebrate 100 years and try to breathe new life into a struggling business.

Paris has been home to triumph and tragedy. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh arrived at Le Bourget, completing his dramatic first solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic. Paris’ first flying display took off from Orly Airport in 1946, and in 1961 organizers staged an eight-hour marathon air display (breaking for lunch – this being France after all) that began with smaller aircraft such as the Piper Comanche, moving up to heavier machinery such as bombers and fighters.

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The 1969 edition hit the high watermark. The first Concorde test aircraft performed a pre-show fly-past over Paris, a Boeing 747 thrilled spectators with a surprise visit and the United States, weeks away from landing a man on the moon, made the Apollo space program its centrepiece.

On the darker side, a production version of the Russian Tu-144 supersonic transport broke up in mid-air in 1973, crashing into nearby houses and killing all six on board and eight on the ground. In 1988, pilot error caused an Airbus A320 to fly “dangerously low,” taking the tops off trees before crashing into a forest.

Still there is more to champion than mourn at Paris. This year’s centenary provided a snapshot of past glories as 30 vintage aircraft including the Blériot IX, a Junker Ju52, Supermarine Spitfire and Lockheed Constellation performed a star turn before vacating the skies for an A380, the first flying display by Russia’s Sukhoï Super Jet 100 regional aircraft and the latest in advanced fighter technology. Canada, which is celebrating its own 100th anniversary of powered-flight, was represented by the Bombardier Challenger 860, Global Express, Learjet 60 and the first production model of the Q400 NextGen turboprop.

Readying Le Bourget for the bi-annual air show is a finely choreographed ballet. Since last December more than 6,000 workers utilizing 10,000 trucks have laid 30,000 kilometres of fibre optic cable, installed 4,000 telephone lines and constructed 73,000 square metres of temporary structures (the equivalent of 280 tennis courts) for this year’s extravaganza.

Many prime exhibitors reduced their presence this year, with Cessna and Gulfstream taking a pass on exhibiting altogether. It can cost up to US$1 million to display at Paris, and corporate aviation is realizing greater value for their investment at NBAA, EBACE and Dubai, where their product is not crowded out by military and commercial hardware.

Despite the no-shows and cost trimming, Paris has filled its 131,000 square metres of display space with a record number of exhibitors, the result of smaller companies filling in the gaps and countries like Australia and Mexico exhibiting for the first time.

Economics will continue to rewrite the rules of air shows. But trade shows remain the best platform to network and get the message out. The big ones are responding to the economic trend by trimming the length of shows and dedicating space for B2B meetings. Paris and Farnborough share a tight calendar with EBACE, a circumstance which may further erode the corporate aviation sector’s participation. But not entirely.

France’s Dassault will always be compelled to fly the flag in its own backyard. That makes it difficult for competitors like Bombardier, a sponsor of this year’s show, to pull back, leaving one manufacturer as the only player in the sandbox.

In 2003, the United States all but shunned Paris – the consequence of worsening Franco-American relations – only to bounce back in force two years later. That is the allure of Paris, an expensive, exhausting and thundering whirlwind of metal, roaring engines, elegant luncheons, fine champagne and billion-dollar announcements (some years better than others). Executives will always complain over the cost, but are making plans for 2011. That is why we will always have Paris.