by Sam Reeves
Asia’s biggest air show opened in Singapore Tuesday under the shadow of a deadly coronavirus outbreak that has forced companies to withdraw, kept visitors away and is battering the aviation industry.
The biennial Singapore Airshow attracts hundreds of global aerospace firms and airlines to the financial hub, where they negotiate multi-million-dollar deals and watch spectacular aerial displays by fighter jets.
But the virus — which has killed more than 1,000 in China and spread to more than two dozen other countries — is overshadowing this year’s event.
Singapore has so far reported 45 cases, and the city-state last week raised its health alert level to the same as during the deadly 2002-2003 SARS outbreak.
Over 70 exhibitors decided to skip the air show and withdrawals include US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, which makes warplanes and defence equipment, Canada’s Bombardier and plane maker De Havilland.
At least 10 Chinese companies have also pulled out after Singapore imposed a ban on people travelling from China in a bid to stem the spread of the virus.
Organisers decided to push ahead but with precautions in place, such as limiting public tickets, screening participants with thermal scanners to detect fevers and asking them to greet one another by waving from a distance or bowing, instead of shaking hands.
The enormous exhibition centre hosting the show, filled with a dizzying array of equipment from mock-ups of plane interiors to tanks and machine guns, looked emptier than at previous editions and few major deals are expected this year.
– ‘Worse than SARS’ –
Some 930 exhibiting companies are attending and around 40,000 trade attendees from more than 45 countries are expected during the four-day event, down from the previous edition of the show in 2018 when over 54,000 trade participants and more than 1,000 companies took part.
Nevertheless, major players, such as Boeing — seeking to recover from a crisis sparked by fatal crashes involving its 737 MAX model –- and Airbus, were still in attendance and some deals were signed.
They included one by Franco-Italian plane maker ATR, which announced Papua New Guinea airline PNG Air would be a new plane’s launch customer with an order for three.
Despite Chinese exhibitors pulling out, China’s air force sent an aerobatics team to take part in the aerial displays that are a highlight of the show.
The Chinese fighter jets put on their display just ahead of US warplanes, a rare instance of the rivals’ military aircraft in the same airspace.
While Beijing and Washington have long been jostling for influence in Asia, Singapore maintains good ties with both.
The mood is expected to remain subdued in Singapore this week as airlines reel from the impact of many nations barring Chinese travellers over the coronavirus outbreak.
Aviation consultancy Ascend by Cirium said in an analysis this week there was a reduction in flights from and within mainland China by roughly 25 percent, and predicted the impact on the industry could be worse than during the SARS outbreak.
“China is a larger part of the global economy and global airline traffic than in 2003,” said Joanna Lu, the group’s head of consultancy for Asia.
The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, like the current coronavirus, began in China before spreading to many countries, and killed hundreds.
The International Air Transport Association said it was too early to assess the full damage, but noted that during the SARS outbreak, Asia-Pacific airlines lost an estimated $6 billion in revenues.
The tourism industry as a whole will suffer “a massive negative blow” due to bans on arrivals from China, said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit.
© Agence France-Presse
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