Singapore yesterday opened Asia’s largest aerospace event under heightened scrutiny as thousands of visitors shunned the Singapore Airshow over 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak fears, while all eyes were on a sensitive fly-off between US and Chinese fighters.
Organizers hailed a “strong show of support” as the city-state’s defense and trade ministers inaugurated the event, which is to run through Sunday, with official forecasts of attendance scaled down to 40,000 trade visitors from 45,000 on Sunday.
Officials said they had taken extra precautions including heat-screening of attendees for signs of fever.
However, foreign reporters and delegates estimated well below 10,000 people were attending on the opening day, usually the show’s busiest, and another signature of air shows — big-spending military delegations — was less evident than in the past.
Some spaces where exhibitors, including Chinese plane maker Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (中國商用飛機), had pulled out were turned into “rest areas” or roped off.
More than 70 companies have pulled out of one of Southeast Asia’s top economic events, citing fears over the outbreak.
Those fears have spilled over to broader concerns over demand for aviation, one of the industries most exposed to the outbreak.
UK-based consultancy Ascend by Cirium, which tracks schedule data worldwide, estimated over the weekend that flights involving China had halved compared with normal levels.
“The numbers are even worse this week, more like 60-70 percent down over pre-crisis schedule and changing daily,” head consultant Rob Morris said on Twitter yesterday.
Still, some companies, including European turboprop maker ATR, announced deals at the show.
It said that Papua New Guinea airline PNG Air would become a launch customer for a short take-off and landing version of its ATR 42-600 with an order for three aircraft.
Boeing Co said lessor BBAM LLC had commissioned the plane maker to convert three 737-800 passenger jets to freighters to serve the growing e-commerce market and express air cargo.
The deal is part of a push into the lucrative services sector as Boeing looks to boost margins.
Korean Air Lines Co ordered Pratt & Whitney engines for up to 50 Airbus A321neo jets.
It is also due to enter talks to be part of Pratt’s repair network for other airlines, matching Delta Air Lines Inc and Deutsche Lufthansa AG.
The visual highlight of the show, perhaps the most intriguing in terms of choreography, was the prospect of near-sequential displays by US and Chinese fighters.
It marks a rare sight of an operational J-10 Chinese fighter unit display team sharing the skies with US top-line military jets: the F-22 and F-35 stealth aircraft.
China and the US, which this year signed a “phase one” deal aimed at easing trade tensions between them, have been jostling for influence in Asia.
Singapore has a close military relationship with the US, training regularly with US forces and permanently basing squadrons of its aircraft in the US.
The US takes the F-35B to Singapore a month after it approved sale of 12 jets to the city-state.
“This is a furtherance of our relationship and our bilateral ties with Singapore,” US Department of State Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper said.
Last year, Singapore also signed an agreement with China for joint exercises, defense dialogue and logistical cooperation.
“Singapore is walking a tightrope between its alliance with the United States reflected in decision to buy F-35 and concerns about antagonizing China,” one Western defense delegate said, adding that the two displays were due to be separated by a gap.
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