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What can be expected at Paris Air Show?

Rumours suggest Middle East airlines could make big announcements.
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With the Paris Air Show 2011 less than a month away, the aviation industry has been awash with rumours about potential orders that could be announced at the biannual trade event.

After stealing the show at the last Paris Air Show in 2009, it’s unsurprising that much of this hearsay has been focused on Middle East carriers. Around two years ago at Le Bourget Airport, Etihad placed one of the largest engine orders in commercial aviation history – valued at a potential US$14 billion - with General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney. Meanwhile, Qatar Airways signed a firm contract for 24 Airbus A320 family aircraft – including the firming up of four A321s announced at Farnborough Air Show 2008 – while Gulf Air announced a $1.5 billion order with Rolls-Royce to supply and maintain engines for 20 Airbus A330 aircraft.

Will history repeat itself in terms of major orders this year? The signs are good. Organisers have confirmed that exhibition space at Paris Air Show has been fully booked since the end of January - the first time this has happened in the show’s history, with around 2000 exhibitors set to attend, in addition to a predicted 340,000 visitors. Industry optimism is also higher now in comparison to the recession-fuelled year of 2009.

Of course, aircraft manufacturers and their customers always prefer an element of surprise when making their air show announcements, so predicting what’s in store at Paris Air Show 2011 will be notoriously difficult. However, subject to last minute negotiations, it seems Qatar Airways may order an extra 10-20 Airbus A380s to boost its existing purchase of five superjumbos, although CEO Akbar Al Baker has hinted the top-end of that scale is more unlikely. In addition, the national carrier has expressed a major interest in the Airbus A320 NEO – a re-engined version of the medium-range A320 – with media reports suggesting that up to 50 will be ordered. That’s before options are even taken into consideration.

And then there’s a big question mark over the Bombardier C Series, which Qatar Airways has been considering for a while, although it delayed a final decision after reaching an impasse over engine maintenance guarantees. Some believe the major NEO order could remove the need for C Series aircraft, while others believe Akbar Al Baker will make announcements for both at the air show, let’s wait and see. There’s no doubt that an order would be welcomed with open arms for the C Series programme though, which has not attracted many purchases to date.

One airline that could be stealing Qatar Airways’ thunder is low-cost carrier AirAsia, which has been considering the purchase of up to 175 Airbus A320 NEOs, in addition to wide-body A330s. “If a deal will be done, it will be imminent,” stated CEO Tony Fernandes last month, with Paris Air Show an ideal platform to make that announcement.

In terms of other Gulf carriers, Emirates is more likely to save its big announcements for the Dubai Air Show later this year, a fact that was recently confirmed by chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum. Rumours about an announcement by Etihad have been minimal, although the Abu Dhabi carrier could surprise. And the dark horse is Gulf Air – as you’ll read in our interview with the carrier’s new chief commercial officer, Karim Makhlouf in the latest issue of Aviation Business magazine, negotiations with Boeing and Airbus are currently talking place, while the Bahrain carrier has also released a tender for around 10 regional aircraft, the outcome of which is expected in the coming months. Whatever happens, be sure to catch the next issue, which will contain all the details, including an exclusive post-Paris Air Show interview with Gulf Air chief executive officer Samer Majali.

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