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Can the aerospace industry recover?

12:00 AM, Jun 30, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Le Bourget

The biennial Salon International de l'Aéronautique et de l'Espace, Paris-Le Bourget--otherwise known as the Paris Air Show--is the largest aerospace exposition of its kind in the world. The shadow of a global economic downturn that has impacted only the automotive sector to a degree worse than it has the aerospace industry gave this year's 48th biennial event one of the more subdued atmospheres in the past two decades.

Le Bourget 2009 should have been festive event as it passed a major milestone in its history--it has been 100 years since the first Paris aerospace salon. But beyond the t-shirts, baseball caps, etc. that marked the occasion there were few signs of celebration. (Because of some disruptions in the show's two-year rotation due to the First and Second World Wars this 48th expo--rather than the 50th that will take place in 2013--marked 100 years since the very first Le Bourget in 1909.)

Two years ago in Rio de Janeiro at the Latin American Defense and Aerospace (LAAD) show, an official I know from Dassault Aviation, the premiere French aerospace firm, said to me something I will not forget for some time. "Anti-Americanism is of course quite popular around the world," he said. "But I--as a Frenchman--will never forget that it was after all the Americans who liberated my country during the war."

It was refreshing to hear someone speak the truth and in a way that might not have resonated well on a barstool in some Paris café or in some posh dining salon of one of the more ostentatious Paris arrondissements. As an American who lives abroad and whose nation is regularly accused of being responsible for all the worlds ills from global warming to the spread of the NIH1 flu virus it was a much welcomed and heartwarming gesture of fraternalism.

A few months later at Le Bourget in June 2007 I saw the same chap, who told me "I see an almost child-like optimism about the future of the aerospace business. I am not sure it is well-founded." This mood was reflected in the motif of the t-shirts, brochures, refrigerator magnets and other souvenirs being sold that year. The artwork was a grade-school style montage of airplanes, clouds, and buildings representing the air show site--all done in pastel shades bordered with a thick black outline around each object like a child's coloring book.

This year a slightly modified version of this toddler-level art class imagery was still being used by the air show organizers. However, the child-like optimism was gone. My Dassault friend showed himself to be prescient beyond that of most of the other analysts, Wall Street investment advisers and London-based aerospace industry "experts."

Dassault is a company that epitomizes what we think of when we conjure up images of high-technology conceived and developed in France. Subtle sophistication intertwined with remarkable achievements in design, as seen in its Rafale fighter aircraft. Immaculate attention to detail, new-age materials, and cockpit designs that are more like something from the set of a Star Trek movie than a 21st century aircraft.

The company is also (like much of the rest of French defense sector) quite secretive. The corporation gives few press conferences about its defense business and negotiations with foreign countries about sales of their military products are rarely revealed until after all the contracts have been signed. Stories about what Dassault is and is not doing in the international defense export market do appear in the French and foreign press, but almost never attributable to a named source within the company. And what can and cannot be said by Dassault is all carefully worded in order not to stray outside the guidelines allowed by the French MoD's Délégation Générale pour l'Armement (DGA), the government agency that coordinates weapons development and foreign military sales.

A visit to the Dassault corporate headquarters located in the Paris suburb of Saint Cloud is a journey to the pinnacle of French aviation. The well-cared-for compound of buildings has--as with any other major corporation with defense business--a controlled perimeter, but not so intimidating and not enforced by as many armed guards as a Boeing or Lockheed Martin plant in the United States would be. Press events are not held on the grounds of the headquarters building. Instead, they take place across the road from the grandiose wrought-iron gates on the river entrance to the compound (at night this entrance intimidates almost to the level of Willy Wonka's closed-to-the-world chocolate factory) on-board a spacious two-level houseboat that is permanently moored on the Seine river.