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Six things we learned from the Paris air show

An Airbus A330 lands at the Paris Air Show
An Airbus A330 lands at the Paris Air Show Credit:  Marina Lystseva/TASS/Getty

The Paris air show is the aviation world’s premier event, where the great and the good come to be wowed by the latest aerospace technology and do multi-billion dollar deals.

But aside from the impressive flying displays, what do you need to know about has been going on at Le Bourget this week?

1. Order announcements are meaningless

On the face of it, pan-European plane-maker Airbus is the hands-down winner when it comes to landing deals. At a headline level it has announced almost 700 contracts, with US-based rival Boeing having less than half that.

However, behind the headline numbers it is a different picture. About half of the planes Airbus has announced are “conversions” - when a buyer has already ordered one model but switches to another. An example is Air Asia’s order for 253 of Airbus’s A321neos, a conversion of the smaller A320neo jets it had previously signed up for.

Boeing also announced contracts for freighter versions of its 737 shorthaul workhorse. These are generally older airliners being turned into cargo haulers, not new aircraft.

The vague relation between airshow orders and actual deliveries of new planes is another open secret of the industry. So-called “firm” orders are not always that, letters of intent may never turn into reality and then there’s the practice of revealing who is behind “undisclosed” orders, which plane-makers may have had on their books but never identified who the buyer is.

2. Aircraft are cheaper than manufacturers claim

Like buying a new car, no sensible buyer pays full price. Manufacturers offer big discounts on big orders and airliners can exert immense pressure by playing off the two dominant plane-makers - Airbus and Boeing - against each other.

No one ever talks openly about the scale of discounts, but it’s rumoured that large airlines may pay just 50pc of the list price for a major order.

Plane-makers might also be willing to offer bargains for political reasons. British Airways owner IAG announced on Tuesday a letter of intent to buy 200 of Boeing’s 737 Max - the plane that has been grounded since March after two of them crashed in similar circumstances.

IAG chief Willie Walsh, right, gave Boeing a boost with plans to buy 200 of its 737 Max jets Credit: Reuters

The Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes that killed 346 people sent shockwaves around the industry with Boeing racing to find a fix for the system thought to be to blame.

Until IAG’s announcement Boeing had not agreed a sale of a 737 Max - its best-selling aircraft - while existing orders have been cancelled.

IAG boss Willie Walsh - himself a former pilot of an earlier version of the 737 - admitted a “substantial discount” was negotiated for order. He also gave Boeing a much-needed boost, saying he had “every confidence in Boeing and expect that the aircraft will make a successful return to service in the coming months”.

An endorsement from such a blue-chip name in airlines will do much to restore faith in the Max, not just in the industry but among the flying public.

3. Boeing’s Max-imum effort

After the two crashes, Boeing was always going to face intense scrutiny at Paris. Few expected orders for the Max and talk was set to revolve around when Boeing would finally get it back in the air.

The aerospace giant’s reputation, balance sheet and share price have taken a knock from the crashes, and it faces claims from airlines who have been unable to fly their 737 Max planes.

However, remarkably little has been said about it at the event. This is partly because Boeing has maintained the same line since the groundings - “our immediate focus is the safe return of the Max to service and re-earning the trust of airlines and the traveling public” - and because there’s no new news.

The company continues to work on a fix and regulators are giving little further indication of when they might allow it back in the air. Pundits are speculating that it could return to service in the US in late August or early September, with most Western nations giving it the green light soon after.

4. The future’s electric - and green

Rolls-Royce announcement it is buying Siemens’ eAircraft business as it accelerates development of hybrid and fully electric aircraft signalled how serious the engineer is about what it calls the “third era” of aviation.

Some dismiss the idea of such aircraft as a flight of fancy but the industry’s intentions were underlined by a joint announcement from the chief technology officers of seven of aerospace’s biggest players.

CTOs from seven leading aerospace companies pledged to improve aviation's environmental credenitals Credit: F Lancelot/Masterfilms

Representatives from Airbus, Boeing, Dassault, GE Aviation, Rolls-Royce, Safran and United Technologies came together to pledge to develop more efficient aircraft and engines which emit less CO2, “radically new” technologies and supporting sustainable, alternative fuels.

“The industry had a half-hearted go about 10 years ago but then it was philosophical, whereas now it’s practical,” said one senior industry insider. “Things are speeding up but physics are not in our favour.”

5. Bigger isn’t always better - but longer’s pretty popular with airlines

Airbus used the show to launch its A321XLR, which can fly 5,400 miles, making it the single-aisle plane with the longest range when it takes to the skies in 2023.

Carrying up to 220 passengers, the XLR - extra long range - is intended to allow carriers to operate longer but less busy routes without using larger, twin-aisle aircraft that cost more to operate.

Passengers want to fly point-to-point, so no wonder Airbus has found plenty of airlines keen to order the new jet. However, how happy passengers will be at the prospect of being cooped up in a relatively small aircraft for 10 or more hours remains to be seen.

Qantas was one of the buyers for the long-range Airbus A321XLR Credit: Airbus

Carriers could see themselves operating it with fewer than the theoretical maximum number of seats - the flying public will accept a lot of discomfort, but there’s got be a limit reached soon.

The A321XLR’s popularity highlights how fast growing the single-aisle airliner market is. So far, Paris has yielded just a few dozen orders for twin-aisle jets for both Airbus and Boeing. These aircraft are more expensive and more profitable for manufacturers.

6. European dogfight

Spain announced at the show that it was joining the Franco-German Future Combat Air System (FCAS) programme to develop a “sixth-generation” stealthy fighter jet. FCAS is a direct competitor to the UK’s Tempest project.

Emmanuel Macron inspects a mock-up of a European next-generation warplane Credit: BENOIT TESSIER /AFP

However, there are concerns that there is not enough for two European rivals in the world market, splitting sales between them and reducing the profits each will generate when the huge of expense of developing them separately is taken into account.

Whether they come together to take on the US remains to be seen but many hope Britain and Europe can find a way to join forces.

What have been your highlights of the 2019 Paris Air Show? Tell us in the comments below.