Saturday, January 23, 2016

Getting Singapore's airshow season from good to great

If you plot the successes of Singapore's airshow season, which takes place every even year, you will get a good example of an S-curve that badly needs good ideas to boost itself to the next growth phase.

After the initial growth spurt, airshow season in Singapore appears to have stagnated with little buzz.

Make no mistake: These airshows contribute handsomely to Singapore's economy, not just from the over-priced drinks and lunch meals tagged with crazy prices. Spinoffs from the event are creamed off by Singapore's exhibitions industry, hotels, restaurants, retail stores and all facets of Singapore's tourism sector who stand to gain when business folk turn tourist after the close of business at the airshow.

What's more, having corporate and defence heavyweights mark Singapore on their busy calendars strengthens Singapore's relevance to the closely networked and highly lucrative aviation and defence business circles.

So who said it was a bad idea?

It isn't.

Airshow season represents a welcome, albeit seasonal, stimulus for the Republic's economy.

What's worrying is the perception that the best years are over for airshow season in Singapore as rival events in the region seek to displace Singapore from its perch as the world's third biggest airshow venue after biennial airshows held in Paris, France and Farnborough in the United Kingdom (or the other way around depending on whether you speak to a Frenchman or Englishman).

To understand why, look at the airshow's growth trajectory in Singapore.

What started as a flyweight, trade-only event at Paya Lebar in the early 1980s morphed into Asian Aerospace in 1984, a trade show held on the fringe of Changi Airport which sold tickets to the public on the last weekend of the show. That year's event was marked by tragedy when a live Armbrust light anti-tank weapon was fired at the Chartered Industries of Singapore booth, killing one visitor with its backblast.

By 1988, Asian Aerospace chalked up a new milestone with its first ever flying display segment. Sixty minutes of flying time was rationed for defence and commercial aviation firms to demonstrate what their product could do. This set AA on its expansion phase.

In 1990, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Black Knights made show history as the first aerobatic team to perform at Asian Aerospace.

In 1994, Asian Aerospace reaped the peace dividend with a large contingent from Russia displaying some of its most advanced combat helicopters, including flying tanks like the Hind and Hokum. This marked the first time such war machines were seen in Singapore since the end of the Cold War. That high watermark of red steel has never been surpassed, with the Russians taking their business to the Langkawi show in Malaysia instead.

At the turn of the century, visitors to Asian Aerospace 2000 got their money's worth when they were thrilled by three precision aerobatics teams. Count'em: Australia's Roulettes, Patrouille de France from the French Air Force and the RSAF's Black Knights. That record has never been beaten.

The Millennium Air Power Conference held on the sidelines of AA2000 was also an unprecedented event that drew air forces chiefs from around the world in the same conference room.

Visitors to Asian Aerospace in the noughties were treated to flying displays by the most advanced strategic bombers from the United States Air Force, with the B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress joining the growing list of warplanes that had flown during Singapore's airshow season.

In 2004, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle appeared during the Asian Aerospace flying display. This was a bold first for Asian Aerospace, with the UAV's debut presaging the influence drones would play in future air battles.

Curtain call
The year 2006 was the curtain call for the well-loved Asian Aerospace series. Reed Exhibitions, the company that owns the Asian Aerospace brand, moved the airshow to Hong Kong after talks over the venue of future airshows were deadlocked. In hindsight, moving AA to Hong Kong essentially killed the show as it robbed the event of the all-important defence component as American and European defence companies would not display their stuff on Chinese soil. But we digress...

And so, the Singapore Airshow made its debut from 2008 and has been held at the sun-baked, hard-to-reach exhibition site that springs to life every two years. The Singapore Airshow or SA for short was initially called the Changi International Airshow. The name was changed to leverage on the Singapore brand - foreigners always called Asian Aerospace the "Singapore air show" anyway - but some suspect the change of heart came about from the unfortunate acronym for Changi International Airshow. But we digress again...

So we've seen the RSAF Black Knights fly at the Singapore Airshow. And we've seen the RSAF stage a somewhat comprehensive shop window at recent editions of the Singapore Airshow. It's good, indeed expected, for the host nation's air force to set the example with a strong presence.

But the show's growth trajectory appears to have plateaued, mirroring the phase of the sigmoid curve that business planners worry about.

To boost the wow factor for the Singapore Airshow, the airshow's planners must go back to first principles to address why people attend airshows in the first place: People go there to be wowed by flying machines.

Win that critical mass and airshow glitterati and a strong public turnout will support the event.

When foreign visitors remember Singapore's airshow season more for its heat, humidity and over-priced Cokes, we have a serious image problem on our hands. When these visitors tell you it is expensive to fly here to do business and talk shop, we better sit up and listen.

Barriers to entry for any country who wants to stage its own air show are low. Essentially anyone with an airport, open space for exhibition halls, a reasonably connected air hub that links other parts of the world to the show venue and half-decent hotels for aviation and defence salesfolk to rest their tired souls can join the airshow circuit.

All ASEAN countries within three hours flying of Singapore have tried, but to varying degrees of success.

The success of the Singapore Airshow owes much to the Lion City's reputation as a place to do business and a venue where networking opportunities are reasonably rich. But as aviation and defence firms see their travel budgets chopped, we risk losing the critical mass that appeals to airshow glitterati who make time to fly to Singapore to see and be seen.

To get our airshow from good to great takes a change in mindsets similar to the one displayed by aviation planners when we made the bold decision to close Changi Airport - the region's busiest airport - for 60 minutes for the airshow to stage its flying display.

And while it is true that flying displays are expensive to stage, the reality is that the RSAF practices for air combat every week of the year. With some creative planning, routine training flights could be timed such that outgoing or incoming formations of RSAF warplanes or combat helicopters could make an appearance at the airshow.

And as Changi Airport plans its future terminal, perhaps some thought should be invested into planning a show venue where aircraft take-offs and landings - which are part and parcel of flying display staged in Paris and Farnborough - can be appreciated by airshow visitors. An airshow venue with a clear view of the runway would present future editions of the Singapore Airshow with a stage for exciting flying displays never before seen in Singapore.

Ditch the gimmicks that risk turning the airshow into a carnival. It is silly, counter productive and dilutes the reputation of Singapore's airshow season. Even at the current state of play, many foreign exhibitors at the Singapore Airshow cordon off their booths during the public days with some exhibitors leaving their stands virtually unmanned on public days. To them, public days at the airshow are a time-wasting nuisance.

If carnival time descends on the Singapore Airshow, do you seriously think it will change or cement such mindsets?

With less than a month to go before the Singapore Airshow 2016 kicks off, it is perhaps too late to change horse at this late stage.

For the sake of the airshow's future, serious belly gazing ought to be done to take Singapore's airshow season to the next growth phase.

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