Travel chaos, labor unrest and extreme heat in focus at Britain’s first major air show since the pandemic

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Britain’s Farnborough International Airshow will showcase the most advanced aircraft across commercial and military aviation design.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

LONDON — Britain’s Farnborough International Airshow will make its long-awaited return next week, with aerospace and defense industry leaders poised to gather against a backdrop of travel chaos and labor unrest.

The five-day trade show, which kicks off on Monday, will showcase the most advanced aircraft across commercial and military aviation.

Over 70 of the top 100 aerospace companies will be present, although Farnborough International suspended Russian participation, citing the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.

Six key themes have been placed at the heart of the event: space, defense, sustainability, innovation, future flight and workforce.

It marks the first time that key players in the airline, defense and space industries will meet face-to-face for a major summer air show since Paris 2019 after cancellations due to the coronavirus crisis.

Now, as the aviation industry faces a rocky recovery from the pandemic, the air show is set to provide a global platform for executives to outline what the future holds.

What will happen at the air show?

Visitors to the air show will see daily flying displays of the most advanced commercial and military aircraft. There will also be the opportunity to view the products up close.

Beyond the displays, some 1,200 exhibitors will attend from across 42 countries.

Some of the companies expected to take part in the event include Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems.

European plane maker Airbus could be poised to sign a deal with U.S. carrier Delta Air Lines at the event. Citing two unnamed sources, Reuters reported that Airbus is in talks to sell more A220 jets to Delta, with a top-up order of around a dozen aircraft potentially set to be announced at the air show.

It is also thought Delta may announce an order for at least 100 Boeing 737 MAX airliners.

Airbus and Boeing were not immediately available to comment when contacted by CNBC.

Delta executives declined to comment on reports of upcoming orders of Boeing and Airbus narrow-body planes during a quarterly earnings call Wednesday.

However, CEO Ed Bastian said: “We have opportunity in the next three to five years of delivery for some additional narrow-body, large narrow-body acquisitions, and that’s something that we’re always talking to Airbus and Boeing about and whether that’s used or whether that’s new, there’s opportunity there.”

A worker inspects an Airbus A220 plane at the Airbus Canada assembly and finishing site in Mirabel, Quebec, Canada in November last year.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Industry players will be monitoring whether there’s an appetite from China to announce new orders at the event.

At the start of July, Airbus secured a mega-order from four Chinese airlines in what was seen as a significant breakthrough for the European carrier and a setback for U.S. rival Boeing.

Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, and Shenzhen Airlines pledged to buy a total of 292 single-aisle A320 family aircraft from Airbus. It was the biggest order by Chinese carriers since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Airbus said the deal demonstrated “the positive recovery momentum and prosperous outlook for the Chinese aviation market.”

At the start of July, Air China, China Eastern, China Southern and Shenzhen Airlines placed an order for 292 single-aisle A320 family aircraft from Airbus.
Nurphoto | Nurphoto | Getty Images

In addition to an array of order bookings and dealmaking, the U.K. government is poised to launch its so-called “Jet Zero” strategy.

The initiative is part of a raft of policies designed to help bring U.K. emissions down to net zero by the middle of the century.

The U.K. government is expected to include mandates forcing British-based airlines to use a minimum amount of sustainable aviation fuel. The policy is designed to boost demand for a product that is substantially more expensive than kerosene jet fuel.

Climate campaigners have sharply criticized the U.K. government’s Jet Zero initiative as not fit for purpose, however, arguing that some sustainable aviation fuels do more harm than good and the plan is predicated on decades of growth that is incompatible with the climate emergency.

Extreme heat

The July 18-22 event comes as soaring temperatures grip parts of Europe and attendees are likely to face scorching heat at the start of the week. Heat waves have become more frequent, more intense and longer lasting as a result of the climate crisis.

Temperatures could peak in excess of 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) in southeast England on Monday and Tuesday. It provides a sweltering backdrop to the air show at a time when the aviation sector is under immense pressure to credibly outline its emission reduction plans.

Temperatures may peak in excess of 35 degrees Celsius in southeast England on Monday and Tuesday.
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Climate-warming emissions from aviation are growing faster than any other mode of transport and are a significant contributor to the climate crisis.

Campaigners have called on airline executives at the air show to adopt meaningful targets to tackle non-CO2 emissions. These non-CO2 effects — such as nitrogen oxides, water vapor, soot and black carbon — from jet engines have been found to contribute twice as much to global heating as aircraft CO2 and were responsible for two-thirds of aviation’s climate impact in 2018.

Another key issue for industry executives is demand reduction as a means to reduce the aviation sector’s soaring emissions.

Travel chaos and labor unrest

The airline industry has been battling a string of challenges in the run-up to the air show sparked by airport chaos ahead of a busy summer holiday season.

Strikes and staff shortages have forced airlines to cancel thousands of flights and resulted in hours-long queues at major airports. It has dampened hopes of an air travel recovery in the first summer after Covid lockdowns.

The airline industry imposed sweeping job cuts and pay cuts as the Covid crisis brought worldwide mobility to a standstill, but the lifting of restrictions has seen a sharp uptick in passenger demand.

Staff are now pushing for improved working conditions and better pay amid soaring inflation.

Suitcases are seen uncollected at Heathrow’s Terminal Three baggage reclaim. The U.K.’s biggest airport has told airlines to stop selling summer tickets.
Paul Ellis | Afp | Getty Images

In a sign that one of Europe’s busiest airports was struggling to cope with the rebound in air travel, London’s Heathrow Airport on Tuesday told airlines to stop selling summer tickets.

The U.K.’s biggest airport, situated in southwest London and roughly 19 miles from Farnborough, said it was limiting passengers who can depart each day over the peak summer months to 100,000. That’s 4,000 passengers fewer than currently scheduled.

The move prompted a furious response from airlines, with the head of the International Air Transport Association branding the restrictions as “ridiculous.” That sentiment has also been echoed by Emirates. The Dubai-based airline rejected what it described as Heathrow’s “unreasonable and unacceptable” demands.

— CNBC’s Leslie Josephs contributed to this report.

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