October 31, 2016 / 9:42 AM / 3 years ago

In big week for air expos, defense jets outlook rosy as civil aviation fragile

ZHUHAI, China (Reuters) - From Zhuhai in southern China to Florida, hawkers of civil and military aircraft - and the money to finance them - will try to drum up new business at aerospace expos this week, conscious their high-risk industry is approaching a turning point.

People take pictures and videos as the first C919 passenger jet made by the Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) is pulled out during a news conference at the company's factory in Shanghai, November 2, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

After U.S. weapons makers beat profit forecasts, analysts say tensions in eastern Europe and Asia are reversing a post-Cold War slump in defense spending that until recently weighed on arms firms. At the same time, commercial aviation is faltering after a decade-long winning streak.

“Civil is weakening and turning very spotty in places, whereas defense is growing in U.S. and world markets,” said Teal Group consultant Richard Aboulafia. “It’s a combination of a re-armament cycle coupled with something of a ramp-up based on regional tensions and fears.”

China’s biggest aviation event - Airshow China, starting in Zhuhai on Tuesday - underlines the trend in what is a banner week for the industry. A defense trade show takes place in Jakarta and an air finance conference in Hong Kong, as well as the annual U.S. business jet jamboree in Orlando, Florida.

Topping Airshow China’s agenda is the last-minute public debut of the J-20 stealth fighter - a warplane China hopes will narrow a military gap with the United States. Ability to project air power is key for China as it flexes muscles on territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas.

It’s the second successive edition of the biennial Zhuhai show at which China has pulled the covers off a classified stealth jet, after displaying the export-oriented Shenyang J-31 in 2014. 

Western analysts say the J-20 moves up a gear in terms of China’s ability to punch beyond its territory, though it may lack the clout of its lookalike, the U.S. F-22 Raptor. The Xian Y-20 strategic cargo carrier, similar to the U.S. C-17 aircraft, will also be present.


Another hot topic at Zhuhai will be the outlook for the much-delayed maiden flight of state-owned Comac’s 150-seat C919 jetliner - Beijing’s effort to challenge the civil aerospace domination of Airbus Group (AIR.PA) and Boeing Co (BA.N). The C919 is currently scheduled to take flight this year, but industry sources say this will slip to 2017.

“When it was launched the C919 was supposed to fly in 2014. Now it is 2016 and it hasn’t flown, because developing a commercial jet has been much harder than they expected,” said China aerospace expert Bradley Perrett of Aviation Week.

The delays mean the jet is launching into a civil market looking softer due to slowing growth - a subject set to dominate discussion when 1,000 commercial jet financiers gather at the two-day Airline Economics conference this week in Hong Kong.

With more than a million millionaires and over 200 billionaires, China should also be among the most promising markets for private jets. But belt-tightening and Beijing’s corruption crackdown have hit demand for large models, which had resisted a post-financial crisis drop in industry sales.

The plight of the business jet trade will dominate the U.S. National Business Aviation Association’s Florida get-together this week. “Previous declines always rebounded,” said Daniel Hall, senior valuations analyst at Flight Ascend consultancy, referring to business jet sales. “This has clearly not.”

Those concerns deepened when parts supplier Honeywell (HON.N) predicted fewer deliveries next year.


Underlining the current divide between civilian and military aviation fortunes, foreign sellers are expected to flock to the Nov. 2-5 Indo Defense arms exhibition in Jakarta, just weeks after Indonesian jets staged exercises on the edge of a South China Sea area claimed by Beijing.

With Indonesia’s arms imports up threefold since 2010, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, competition between suppliers is brutal.

Delegates at the event will seek updates on a tentative decision by Indonesia to buy around 8 Sukhoi Su-35 fighters from Russia.

Rivals contractors are fighting to stay in contention for the deal to supply Jakarta with fighters, in what one Western source described as a test for efforts by President Joko Widodo to enforce more transparency in big-ticket deals.

Rivals Lockheed Martin (LMT.N), Sweden’s Saab (SAABb.ST) and owners of Europe’s Eurofighter will all attend Indo Defense.

Additional reporting by Alwyn Scott in ORLANDO, Florida; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell

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