Coronavirus clips wings of Asia’s biggest air show

Members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s Bayi Aerobatic Team fly J-10 performance aircraft as they take part in an aerial display during a media preview ahead of the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 9, 2020. (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP)

by Martin Abbugao

SINGAPORE, Singapore (AFP) — Asia’s biggest air show opens in Singapore Tuesday under the shadow of a deadly coronavirus outbreak that has prompted dozens of companies to withdraw and threatens to hammer 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 hundreds in China and spread to more than two dozen other countries — looks set to overshadow this year’s event.

Over 40 cases have so far been reported in Singapore, and the city-state last week raised its health alert level to the same as during the deadly 2002-2003 SARS outbreak.

The number of exhibitors deciding to skip the show has now climbed to over 70.

Among them is US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, which makes warplanes and defense equipment used by militaries around the world.

“We determined that this was in the best interest of our employees,” the company said in a statement.

Other withdrawals include Canada’s Bombardier and plane maker De Havilland, while a major aviation conference normally held on the eve of the air show was also canceled.

In addition, at least 10 Chinese companies have pulled out after Singapore imposed a ban on people traveling from China in a bid to stem the spread of the virus.

Bows, but no handshakes 

Organizers insist the show will go on, however.

They are taking precautions such as limiting the number of public tickets and advising participants to greet one another by waving from a distance or bowing, instead of shaking hands.

“The safety and well-being of all attendees is our priority,” said Leck Chet Lam, the managing director of organizer Experia Events.

There will still be over 930 exhibiting companies and 45,000 trade attendees from more than 45 countries, including the top two global aviation players, Boeing — seeking to recover from a crisis sparked by fatal crashes involving its 737 MAX model –- and Airbus.

Both are banking on growing numbers of orders from carriers in the booming Asia-Pacific, where air travel is growing fast.

But with reduced participation and airlines feeling the impact after many nations barred Chinese travelers over the outbreak, the mood will be subdued and major deals are not expected.

The International Air Transport Association told AFP it was a “challenging time” and airlines would be “impacted negatively”, but added it was too early to assess the full damage.

The association, however, noted that during the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) — which, like the current virus, spread from China and killed hundreds — Asia-Pacific airlines lost an estimated $6.0 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, adding outbound Chinese travellers rose from 20 million in 2003 to 150 million in 2018.

© Agence France-Presse