For the first time in the event’s history, the Farnborough International Airshow went digital in 2020. Stirling’s R&D Manager, Dr Simon Hancock, discusses his impressions of the virtual event, FIA Connect, and how it compared the real thing.
Like many UK companies that work in the aerospace sector, come rain or shine (Farnborough does seem to attract extremes in weather!), the Farnborough International Airshow is a constant in our event calendar. For me, it is usually is a week of darting to and from customer meetings, panel discussions, networking events and working lunches at exhibitor chalets. If I’m lucky, I may get to see one of the air displays (I certainly hear them roaring overhead). So, when the news came on the 20th March 2020 that the International Farnborough Airshow was being cancelled, it was a huge disappointment; a lot of hours had already been spent by our team preparing and planning our 2020 exhibition and an intended collaboration with our parent organisation, Expleo. However, the decision to cancel was absolutely the right one taken by the show organisers and, not surprising given that all of the other events in our 2020 calendar from March onwards had either been cancelled or rescheduled to later in the year.
The International Farnborough Airshow goes virtual
Instead, in mid-May, it was announced a virtual version of the Farnborough Airshow would take place between the 20th-24th July 2020, called FIA Connect. This virtual event which would host a series of webinars and online panel discussions, but how would it compare to the real thing? Closer to the show date, show organisers said they expected between 20,000 and 30,000 people to participate in the online sessions during the week and the show agenda certainly looked good, with themes including sustainability and, of course, the impact of the COVID pandemic on the global aviation industry. Additionally, as Stirling had signed up to be a show exhibitor, we were also eligible to take part in the online version of the Airshow’s Meet the Buyer programme.
What did we think of the virtual event?
Over the lockdown period, we’ve become used to virtual meetings and presentations and I’m happy to report back that the Farnborough virtual experience felt familiar and ran smoothly; the virtual presentations were excellent, the ones I attended anyway, and provided some valuable insight into the aerospace industry both in the UK and globally. Even the virtual Meet the Buyer programme managed to provide some new connections for us, which we will be following-up post-show.
Did I miss the usual hustle and bustle of the Airshow? Yes and no. I did miss the buzz and energy of the usual Farnborough Airshow experience and all the opportunities to meet face to face with old and new contacts, but it is a full-on week and I definitely did not miss the practicalities and logistics surrounding the Airshow like collecting passes, morning queues, waiting for shuttle buses or taxis and the end of day exhaustion.
Overall, I thought that the virtual experience was positive and that the show organisers made the best out of a bad situation.
A round-up of FIA Connect’s trends and highlights
Unfortunately, there’s no getting away from the fact that the commercial aviation sector has been hard hit by COVID-19 and there’s no doubt that change is coming. Prior to FIA Connect, Airbus chief executive, Guillaume Faury went on record to say that “we are now in the midst of the gravest crisis the aerospace industry has ever known” and a large number of FIA Connect sessions tackled issues of resilience as a response to the pandemic and the relaunch and recovery of the sector.
There were some glimmers of hope, in the form of green aviation and sustainability. The UK government took the opportunity at FIA Connect to announce a new FlyZero initiative that “will bring together 100 experts to kickstart work into zero-emission aircraft technology, with the aim of securing future manufacturing in the UK” and whilst on a FINN session panel discussing sustainability, the UK Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, reiterated that Britain remains committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Additionally, a crisis often becomes the catalyst for change and perhaps this could be the time that electric aviation really leaps forward. On this theme, the emerging Urban Air Mobility (UAM) sector seems to be holding steadfast. Thursday was dedicated to the Global Air Mobility Summit and it was clear that the UAM market is still attracting funding and moving ahead, although issues surrounding safety, ATC and public perception still need further work.
“A crisis often becomes the catalyst for change and perhaps this could be the time that electric aviation really leaps forward”.
Away from this emerging new technology sector, there was talk of the drop in passenger flights, combined with a high level of cargo traffic that has led to increased interest in conversions with Lufthansa coining the term ‘Preighter’ for temporary conversions. Additionally, airlines and leasing companies may be looking to reduce their fleet size, so there could be a lot more aircraft available for permanent conversion, this trend was actually discussed in a recent Stirling blog post. Lastly, Defence was a hot topic (specifically the UK Tempest and European FCAS programmes) and is seen as another potential lifeline for recovery. It is certainly an area where national governments can support industry and local supply chains, though funding restrictions may result in several international partnerships.
Stirling Dynamics is an advanced engineering company that delivers a range of technical services to the aerospace sector. For more information on Stirling’s consultancy services visit https://www.stirling-dynamics.com/services/