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Grim Economic News Overshadows Paris Air Show - 2003-06-14


The celebrated Paris Air Show opens its doors to the public Sunday, for a week of business deals and spectacular flights. But the show is also shadowed by grim economic news, and a markedly smaller American presence.

The atmosphere was festive at the 45th annual Paris Air Show, at Le Bourget airport just outside the French capital. Journalists and business officials sat on terraces on a hot, muggy afternoon, sipping wine and watching jets spin and dive. French President Jacques Chirac inaugurated the show and looked in on Russian, Chinese and other exhibition stands. He also visited a newly-retired supersonic Concorde jetliner which has been moved to Le Bourget's museum.

Mr. Chirac spent little time at the American stand because there wasn't much to see. U.S. exhibitors at this show number around 200, down from 350 two years ago.

Show organizer Yves Bonnet attributes the drop to economics, but there's speculation that the smaller American presence is caused by U.S. anger over France's opposition to the Iraq war. For the first time, for example, no American military plane will fly in the Paris show.

Other concerns hang over this year's air show. The airline industry worldwide has been in a tailspin since the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Continued fears of terrorism, the Iraq war, and the SARS outbreak have not helped. As a result, says a spokesman for Boeing, Jean-Marc Fron, business expectations at the show aren't very high.

"This is the worst crisis the sector has ever known," he said. "We are in the middle of this crisis. We hope that in the next two or three years, the airlines will be getting much better, and will start to order new aircraft."

Boeing's main competitor, the European Airbus, is only a bit more optimistic. Barbara Kracht is a spokeswoman for Airbus.

"It will not be a great show, as it used to be when the market was booming," said Barbara Kracht. "That's clear. But on the other side, it's probably going to be a better show than what we would have expected, in view of the environment."

Airbus may have a reason to be upbeat. It's expecting to receive some lucrative orders for its new, super-jumbo jet during the show. If so, for the second year running, it will beat Boeing overall in total orders.