What it was like to cover my first airshow: A Dubai Airshow recap
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I’ve been on the airline and broader travel beat for about five years now, and I’ve loved almost every minute of it (aside from the first 12 months of the pandemic, which were devastating for the airline industry and depressing to report on.)
But until now, I’d never made it to the pinnacle events of aviation, a major air show.
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Airshows happen once or twice a year and serve basically as conventions for the aerospace industry. Pretty much every stakeholder is there as plane makers try and court airline and plane lessor customers, airlines show off their latest cabins and products, and component suppliers, maintenance companies, universities, startups, and even national trade departments set up to exhibit.
Meanwhile, outside the convention hall, dozens of planes sit parked and are available for tours. Some are open to anyone, while others are by invitation only. At the end of each day, weather permitting, aircraft take to the skies to perform dazzling flying displays.
Typically for U.S. and European-based reporters, the main airshows are Farnborough, outside of London, and Paris, which each take place in the early summer of alternating years.
I was supposed to go to Farnborough in June 2020 as my first show. Needless to say, that one didn’t happen.
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But this was the first show since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill, giving it more importance on the global stage than ever before.
Even so, it was a relatively quiet show compared to what typically comes from Farnborough or Paris — only a few aircraft sales notable for our primary audience, and only one major product debut (more on that in a moment). This made it a perfect “first,” allowing me to get my bearings, figure out how best to report on it, and make mistakes now instead of at the bigger shows.
Of course, that one major attraction was big: Boeing’s new 777X, which made its airshow debut and its first public, close-up appearance.
That was a productive one for me. Thanks to the chaos of show scheduling — and the apparent demand of other media wanting to see the plane — it wasn’t easy to get a scheduled slot with Boeing to tour the aircraft. At the last minute, Boeing let me know that I was good to go for the first morning of the show.
The rest of the show was a nearly overwhelming rush of chaos. Trying to cover both breaking and longer-term business news while photographing as much of the show as possible meant five days of running around from a press briefing to an interview, to a meeting, to an aircraft tour, or a dinner event — all while hauling around what felt like a thousand pounds of camera equipment, my laptop and chargers along with water bottles to help get me through the days.
It was at least 90 degrees most days, but it felt even hotter outside the aircraft displays on the tarmac. After the first day, I made a point to go and find some sunscreen.
A highlight of the show was the flying displays, aerial stunts performed by stunt and test pilots. I missed most of the display the first day during a meeting but tried to make up for it over the next few days. The show organizers published a schedule for the exhibition each morning, which made it easier to plan.
There was one thing at the show that I was not quite expecting: the heavy emphasis on military arms.
The major airshows all typically feature both civil and military aviation — after all, a lot of the same companies work on both sides of it. As my friend Jeremy, who was at the show, put it, “it’s like an arms show masquerading as a commercial airline show.”
Still, there was something surreal and a little unsettling about the glibness and eagerness with which companies and people were viewing and selling weapons of war, especially considering that this wasn’t a NATO event — the U.S., Russia, China, Belarus, India, Pakistan, and even Israel were all in attendance, which is not the dynamic you’d necessarily expect to see.
For instance, there were booths advertising cruise missiles and “general-purpose bombs,” which was bizarre to see.
The fighter planes and attack helicopters performing stunts were incredible and fun to watch, but it was still hard not to remember that the same roaring engine I was hearing as a plane performed a barrel roll is the same sound that some people in the world have heard before dying in a bombing.
It’s simply the reality of the world we live in. The defense sector is a large part of our economy and society — this was merely seeing the economic aspect of the military-industrial complex up close.
Regardless, it was overall a fun, engaging, and valuable experience to be at the Dubai Airshow this year, and a treat to be surrounded by so many people with a passion for aviation, whether professionally, personally, or both.
Between meetings with planemakers and cabin designers, tours of interesting airline products and aircraft and of course the chance to see some incredible flying, it was a week that was well-spent. I’m looking forward to Farnborough in July, where I’ll be ready to hit the ground running.
Hopefully it’ll be a bit cooler than Dubai.
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