Interview: Alison Weller, Dubai Airshow 2011
The much-awaited Dubai Airshow 2011 is expected to smash records in terms of exhibitor numbers, attendance levels and aircraft orders. Alison Weller, managing director of the event’s organiser, F&E Aerospace, provides the latest updates.
Since its very first edition in 1989, Dubai Airshow has emerged as one of the biggest and most prominent events for the international aviation industry. How has this been achieved over the past 22 years?
Dubai Airshow was initially a small exhibition at Dubai World Trade Centre but the growth has been phenomenal over the years, mainly because this is a strong emerging market and Dubai in particular has spearheaded aviation growth in the Middle East, so we’ve been in the right place at the right time. This year’s edition is the 12th show to date and there are more exhibitors than ever before, so we’ve squeezed into our current home at Airport Expo for the very last time by making a few little extensions, before moving to our forthcoming venue at Dubai World Centre in time for the next airshow in 2013.
What numbers are currently expected in terms of visitors and exhibitors?
We’re looking at more than 55,000 trade visitors this year, almost four percent more than the previous show in 2009, while exhibitor numbers will be 12 percent higher than 2009 levels, with 1000 companies from 50 countries around the world. Major participants will include Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, EADS and Lockheed Martin, although what I found particularly interesting is that Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala is our biggest exhibitor in 2011. This is quite an achievement for the UAE, especially because if you look back at Dubai Airshow a few editions ago, Mubadala did not even exist. Its always satisfying to attract emerging players and newcomers in the industry. This year, new companies account for some 20 percent of Dubai Airshow’s growth and a number countries, such as Australia, France, Jordan and the USA, have also increased their presence.
The bulk of media coverage for airshows is normally dedicated to announcements about aircraft orders. What are you expecting in this regard at Dubai Airshow 2011?
There has been a lot of speculation about aircraft orders in recent months. At the last Dubai Airshow in 2009, the onsite orderbook was valued at over US$14 billion and there have been suggestions that this year’s figure will be 10 percent bigger. To be honest, I really have no idea and don’t believe an accurate prediction can be made, because nobody has access to that information at this stage, not even the organiser. Let’s hope the speculation comes through, although that’s not the reason we hold an airshow. People often think its all about the orderbook, but there’s an awful lot of business, especially in the Middle East, that’s nothing to do with orders. It’s all about partnerships and co-locating things – these deals are worth far more than some of the aircraft orders, although they cannot be talked about publically. That’s why the airshow is there – to network with fresh contacts and meet with existing partners. That’s what I explain to new exhibitors that are looking at the Middle East for future opportunities. Even if you take a stand at a show like ours, and you meet people that don’t seem relevant today, they could be tomorrow. I’m been doing the airshow here for 10 years and people I’ve met with very small jobs at airlines are now heading up airports. It’s all about building a network here and that’s what the airshow is supposed to be about.
What else can the aviation industry expect from this year’s Dubai Airshow?
A variety of new initiatives have been incorporated into the show to encourage more business than ever before. For starters, Dubai Airshow 2011 will coincide with the 40th anniversary of UAE national day, which is actually two weeks after our event, so this is the perfect opportunity to showcase the country to other parts of the world, especially with the amount of global media coverage we receive. We want to reflect the UAE’s great strides in building a comprehensive aerospace industry.
The final date of the airshow has been themed ‘futures day’ – what is actually involved with this new initiative?
Well, the regional aviation industry is expected to continue its fast-paced growth over the coming years and there will be a massive shortage of qualified and experienced people, such as pilots and technicians. This is a major concern and something I personally feel very committed to addressing. As part of the ‘futures day’, students will be invited to the airshow and hopefully we will motivate them to consider a long-term career in aviation. It’s a great opportunity for them to come along and listen to spokespeople from major companies such as Boeing and Rolls-Royce, as well as military pilots, who can discuss the merits of working in this industry. Of course, we already have students from aviation colleges attending, but this is aimed as non-aviation students from key colleges and universities in the United Arab Emirates who might not have considered entering this industry before.
What other highlights have been planned outside of the actual exhibition this year?
We will also host the first annual Gulf Aviation Training Event (GATE), which follows along the lines of the futures day theme and our national day celebrations. Again, with concerns about a skills shortage in Middle East aviation, there is a severe problem in terms of relevant training. Although state-of-the-art aircraft are being purchased in this region, they need to be flown by people qualified to international standards and it’s not really efficient for training to constantly be supplied abroad. This will be addressed at GATE, which has been themed ‘averting crisis: the selection and training of Middle East-based flight crew for the next generation’. We want to attract senior management from airlines as well as policy decision-makers, while speakers will come from the likes of Emirates, flydubai and GCAA. Companies such as Airbus, Gulf Centre for Aviation Studies (GCAS) and Horizon Flight Academy have also lent their support. At the end, a white paper will be produced to initiate a development plan and encourage progress.
Is there potential to host airshows in other parts of the Middle East, like the emerging one in Bahrain?
As a company, we don’t just organise Dubai Airshow, we have lots of aviation events and we have entered discussions with other countries in the region about this, although a replication of the Dubai Airshow should be avoided, because the market is not big enough. I think the Bahrain Airshow has done quite well in terms of finding a niche and other countries might look at their own options too.
Finally, this is the last year for Dubai Airshow at the current venue. Are you excited about moving to Dubai World Central in time for the 2013 airshow?
I’m excited about the move to Jebel Ali, although it’s emotional because Airport Expo was purpose-built to host the Dubai Airshow back in 1999 and has been our home for a long time. But this is the fourth busiest airport in the world and simply cannot cope with the airshow, so its time to move. A new home is necessary, where we’re not in the way and have the scope to expand in the future. Also, hopefully we can showcase Dubai World Central and really build the business there, like we did with Dubai Airport, because it really will be where the aviation industry moves – and we’re lucky we will be amongst the first to head there. A dedicated area has been assigned and I’ve walked onto the static park area, it’s already there facing a runway. So we know we have our home, we just have to worry about our halls and even those plans are beginning to take shape.