SINGAPORE: Fears of COVID-19 has visibly dampened spirits and visitor numbers at the biennial Singapore Airshow, with crowds at today’s opening trade day on Tuesday (Feb 11) thinner than previous iterations of the usually bustling and popular airshow.
The reduced crowds were also noticeable during the day’s flying display in the afternoon. Usually a big drawcard, the audience catching today’s flying programme was smaller than usual.
Despite the rain forcing visitors to vantage points under shelter to watch the display, there was still room to move among the audience.
Also seen were a number of empty exhibitor booths at the Changi Exhibition Centre (CEC), as some companies made the last-minute decision to pull out of the show, leaving their booths bare save for some furniture and a handful of staff whose task was to explain the situation to those who stopped by.
Precautionary measures in view of the coronavirus outbreak were also rolled out, a first for the airshow, the most prominent being the additional temperature screening tent just before registration and security that all visitors must pass through before entering.
Also present were the ubiquitous face masks and hand sanitisers, although the number of the former was fewer than what I had anticipated, suggesting that the authorities’ exhortations for people not to wear masks unless they were unwell might have guided planning considerations.
A number of participants at the show I spoke to similarly felt that a lot of the “panic” was an overreaction, with one foreign visitor remarking that if there was indeed a global pandemic, Singapore would actually be the safest place, where the healthcare system is one of the most advanced in the world and public safety measures are rolled out like clockwork.
A SPATE OF CANCELLATIONS
The infectious disease scare really started to affect the airshow early in February, with the decision on Feb 4 to cancel the Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership Summit, which traditionally takes place on the eve of the show and attracts civil aviation and commercial leaders.
This was followed by Singapore’s raising its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) Alert Level from Yellow to Orange three days later.
The statement triggered the first companies to announce a withdrawal from the airshow, with US Fortune 500 industrial conglomerate Textron and Canadian aerospace and train manufacturer Bombardier among the first to make that decision.
Others, like aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin, initially announced a reduction in the number of staff attending the show, before eventually deciding to pull out altogether.
At last count, the number of companies to decide against participating has gone up to almost 80, with many local representatives citing the raising of the DORSCON level to orange as chief main driving factor.
The decision by these companies to pull out of the show would have been a painful one, given that the Singapore Airshow represented a good opportunity for them to connect with existing and potential customers and partners in one of the fastest growing part of the world.
They would have also already paid for the travel costs of staff, along with the transportation and set-up of installations at their airshow booths including static displays.
Organiser Experia Events will take the biggest hit. The usual matrices for determining the success of the show, ranging from the value of contracts signed and the number of government, trade, and public visitors will undoubtedly take a hit, while the move to reduce tickets available on the public days on Saturday and Sunday will see a drop in revenue from those sales compared to the 80,000 sold last year.
However, despite what has been described by Experia’s managing director Leck Chet Lam as “trying circumstances”, this is almost certain to be a one-off hit for the show owing to a black-swan event. Few expect the next iteration of the Singapore Airshow to take place amid a similarly bleak backdrop.
The Singapore Airshow is the only aerospace and defence event in the Asia-Pacific that provides marketplace and networking opportunities for commercial aviation and defence suppliers to showcase new technology and solutions, and is seen as a critical node in the aviation sales calendar along with the Paris Air Show in Europe and the Dubai Air Show in the Gulf.
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The 2018 edition was estimated to have brought in a whopping S$343 million to Singapore’s economy, a 4 per cent increase compared to 2016, and saw the attendance of 54,000 trade visitors including 65 of the top 100 global aerospace companies.
More participating companies say they formed a strategic partnership or expect to finalise a sale at the Singapore Airshow in 2018 compared to 2016.
Instead, more worrying for the aviation industry as a whole is the effect of the outbreak on travel and other trade figures worldwide, with the tourism sector in Singapore expecting to see the number of visitors fall by 25 to 30 per cent this year, according to the Singapore Tourism Board.
VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
Still, there were some notable companies who decided to stick around. Aerospace giants Boeing and Airbus maintained a strong presence at the CEC, with Boeing emphatic that it remained “fully committed” to the Singapore Airshow.
The US Department of Defense also maintained a strong, albeit reduced presence. In addition to its F-22 and F-35 flying displays, a powerful delegation of officials and senior military officers attended the airshow, including the head of the US Air Force’s Pacific Air Forces General Charles Q Brown Jr and Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R Clarke Cooper.
Other notable defence leaders, including Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu, Malaysian Armed Forces Chief General Affendi Buang and Indian Air Force Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar were also in Singapore.
The presence of such heavyweights is surely a vote of confidence placed on the measures Singapore authorities have taken to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has sickened more than 25,000 people and killed over 1,000 since late last year.
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Indeed, General Brown told reporters at a media roundtable on the eve of the show he was satisfied with the measures Singapore has taken based on his conversations with the US Embassy in Singapore along with the Chief of the Republic of Singapore Air Force Major-General Kelvin Khong prior to his arrival. He also made a point to shake the hands of all the reporters present before starting his roundtable.
The coronavirus outbreak might have created a hiccup for the 2020 edition but there’s no reason to think this speed bump will slow the long-term growth of the Singapore Airshow.
Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.