SINGAPORE — Over 270 delegations from around the world and more than a thousand participating companies from 47 countries and regions made their way into the Singapore Airshow for five intense days of showcasing their products to the world. And this year, the Changi Exhibition Center boasted the largest display of static aircraft since its first edition, with over 60 commercial, private, military, and experimental aircraft on permanent exhibition during the show.

The biannual show is taking place from February 16-21, just five months ahead of the Farnborough Air Show in London—the world’s second largest—which celebrates its 50th show in July. Orders and agreements are never as big in Singapore as in Farnborough or Paris (Le Bourget), but the economic significance of this show is paramount for the Asia-Pacific aerospace and defense industry.

Executives worried?

In 2014, over US$32 billion in orders and agreements were signed in Singapore (a 3% increase over 2012), but the expectations for this year’s show remained low as rumors of an upcoming aerospace downturn were floating in the air.

“Some people are saying we’re in the middle of a bubble,” Airbus COO John Leahy told a press conference. “But reality is, the only thing that worries me is to not be able to deliver the aircraft our customers have ordered.”

In fact, both Airbus and Boeing have very strong backlogs and even though sales have been weak during the past year, optimism remains high at both manufacturing houses as the number of airplanes they have to deliver is, in Leahy’s words, large.

Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg agreed that such worries of an upcoming crisis are unfounded. He said aircraft demand will increase at a much faster pace than economic growth, as income and urbanization will continue to rise in Asia. Embraer’s CCO John Slattery concurred, saying the demand for new regional jets in the Asia Pacific region will escalate to 6,350 new aircraft by 2020.

Asia to be aviation epicenter of the world… just not yet

Most of this growth will be powered by China, where urbanization and middle-class growth will require an enhanced aviation infrastructure.

“By 2025, there will be 200 mega-cities in China,” said Andreas Meisel, COO of the Ameco Beijing maintenance/repair (MRO) center, at the Asia Business Forum on the show’s second day. “Each of these cities will need to be connected by air and rail, and this needs to be properly forecasted by both airplane manufacturers and the Chinese government.”

Asia is, in fact, becoming the aviation epicenter of the world. Both mainline and low-cost carriers (LCC) are introducing new routes and demand continues to rise. Aircraft manufacturers and MROs are heavily investing in the region. Airbus has an A320 final assembly line in Tianjin, China, while Boeing produces key parts for its several programs at different locations throughout Asia, and expects to build a 737 completion center in China as well.

The Brazilian regional jet manufacturer, Embraer, also sees big opportunities in Asia.

“One of every four Embraer aircraft will be delivered to the Asia-Pacific region in the next 10 years,” Mark Dunnachie, VP Asia Pacific, said at a press briefing. “We have the momentum of 176 sales and over 100 deliveries in 2015—a strong 60% market share in the regional jet segment.”

Dunnachie said Embraer planned to improve on the current LCC model in Asia, which he called unsustainable and in need of change.

“Direct connectivity is key for the development of air transport in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said. “For those who travel from A to C, they have to go via B.” That’s not a practical solution for the traveler, he said. “Direct connectivity is a must, and Embraer will provide that solution.”

Fuel-efficient aircraft no longer hot properties

The recent rout in oil prices have taken a bite out of the sales prospects of all new, fuel-efficient aircraft, evidenced at the recent Dubai Air Show and now in Singapore.

Vinay Bhaskara, Senior Business Analyst at Airways Magazine, notes that the impetus for new fuel-saving technologies came at a time when oil prices were above the $90/barrel mark.

“The Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo technologies offer cash savings in operating cost per seat miles of up to 8% (about $3 savings per gallon) against its preceding technology,” he says. “With current fuel prices, airlines are looking at pricing and capital deployment rather than fuel-saving capabilities.”

In other words, fuel-efficient aircraft have shifted from being essential purchases to nice-to-haves. And that is being reflecting in the order books.

New orders for some aircraft

However, both Boeing and Airbus secured small, yet significant orders in Singapore. The American-based builder announced a commitment for 12 Boeing 737s (eight -8 MAX, three -9 MAX and one -900ER) with China’s first privately owned airline, Okay Airways.

Ray Conner, president and CEO, Boeing Commercial Airplanes (left) and Wang Shusheng, Chairman, Okay Airways (right) pose for a photo during a signing ceremony in Singapore. (Credits: Boeing)
Ray Conner, president and CEO, Boeing Commercial Airplanes (left) and Wang Shusheng, Chairman, Okay Airways (right) pose for a photo during a signing ceremony in Singapore. (Credits: Boeing)

In the announcement, Boeing CEO Ray Conner noted that the Beijing-based carrier became the first in its country to launch the 737-9 MAX. That airplane has been unsuccessful in the competition against the Airbus A321neo—what Airbus’ Leahy called “the airline’s favorite.”

Leahy, in fact, took the opportunity to poke Boeing’s chest: “I know the ‘paper airplane company’ in Seattle loves to talk, I could give Boeing some advice on how to fill that hole,” referring to Airbus’s 68% dominance in the neo vs. MAX programs.

Airbus, for its part, announced an order for six A350-900s from Philippine Airlines, which will expand the airline’s reach into the United States and Europe. The airline signed a memorandum of understanding worth $1.8 billion at list prices.

Philippine Airlines Airbus A350 artwork. (Credits: Airbus)
Philippine Airlines Airbus A350 artwork. (Credits: Airbus)

In addition, the Toulouse-based manufacturer announced an order for 14 A330-900neo, from an undisclosed customer, bringing up the count to 186 aircraft for the new re-engined A330 program backlog.

Mitsubishi regional jet moves

In the regional jet segment, Miami-based Aerolease Aviation signed a letter of intent (LOI) for 10 Mitsubishi Regional Jets (MRJ) and options for 10 more. This deal marks the first order for brand-new aircraft for the leasing company, which had specialized in dealing used cargo aircraft in the past. It’s the first leasing company to show interest in the MRJ program.

Meanwhile, in the turbo-prop segment, Aviation PLC—a leasing company based in Singapore—ordered five ATR 72-600s turbo props, valued at US$130 million.

ATR and the Singapore-based lessor Avation PLC sign a purchasing agreement for five ATR 72-600s during Singapore Airshow 2016. (Credits: ATR)
ATR and the Singapore-based lessor Avation PLC sign a purchasing agreement for five ATR 72-600s during Singapore Airshow 2016. (Credits: ATR)

“The ATR is a superb aircraft for lessors,” said Patrick de Castelbajac, CEO of ATR. “Our success among leasing firms underlines our product’s ability to consolidate and expand regional connectivity in different operational environments.”

New life for old planes and long-haul routes

Its Canadian counterpart, Bombardier, announced a new 90-seat variant for its Q400 turboprop program, to enter service by 2018. No similar aircraft in the market will have such capacity for passengers and cargo.

Bombardier also announced that Air Canada signed an LOI to purchase 75 CS300 aircraft, which includes 45 firm orders and 30 options with substitution rights to the smaller variant, the CS100. This order gives life to the suffering CSeries program, which hadn’t seen any firm orders since September 2014.

British engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce said a new variant of its successful Trent XWB engine will fly with Singapore Airlines on its A350s.

The carrier plans to take delivery of its first A350-900 in 2019. That plane will begin flying nonstop to the US, resuming the airline’s direct flights Los Angeles and the world’s longest to New York, both suspended in November 2013. Rolls-Royce says the new engine, will offer between 1% and 3% fuel savings over the preceding version. The British manufacturer claims to have a 50% market share in global orders for widebody aircraft engines, securing to date orders for more than 1,500 XWB Trents.

Qatar Airways and its controversial CEO, Akbar Al Baker, were at the show with the airline’s two newest airliners, the Airbus A380 and A350. Al Baker told reporters he’s seeking compensation from Airbus after rejecting the delivery of the first A320neo powered by Pratt & Whitney’s PW 1100GTF engines in December because of alleged cooling issues. Al Baker said PW is a long way from providing a solution, and until then the airline will not take delivery of the aircraft.

Part of the Qatar Airways crew present at the Singapore Airshow. (Credits: Qatar Airways)
Part of the Qatar Airways crew present at the Singapore Airshow. (Credits: Qatar Airways)

Despite the low number of orders and commitments, there was an overall feeling that the aviation industry in the region is booming and there’s nothing but a bright future ahead for airlines, manufacturers and MRO businesses.

All eyes remain on Farnborough in July, where perhaps Boeing could announce its long-waited middle-of-the-market airliner, and Airbus could decide on a larger A350, adding a new page to this never-ending competition story.