Virus Outbreak Forces Late Decisions For Singapore Airshow Visitors

Black Eagles
Credit: Korea Aerospace Industries

The show may go on, but not for some companies and foreign delegations. 

As global alarm over a deadly viral outbreak grew over the weekend, several companies and one air force demonstration team decided to skip the Singapore Airshow on Feb. 11-16. 

In North America, Bombardier, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Gulfstream and Textron decided not to attend, with each company attributing the withdrawal to concerns about the health of their employees and customers. 

Thousands of miles closer to the source of the viral outbreak in Wuhan, China, the South Korean Air Force announced on Twitter than the Black Eagles demonstration team will not appear as scheduled at the show. 

The sudden eruption of the coronavirus epidemic only weeks before one of the aviation industry’s largest events in Asia left many companies scrambling for information. 

A total of 14,557 confirmed cases and 304 deaths had been reported as of Feb. 2, according to the latest situation update by the World Health Organization. 

The Singapore government reported 18 confirmed cases by the end of Feb. 3, but no new cases since Feb. 1. The local government distributed masks and disinfectant to local residents and allowed large local gatherings, such as the Chingay Parade that drew 6,000 volunteer performers, to proceed as scheduled over the weekend. 

So far, it appears most of the air show’s largest exhibitors plan to attend. Boeing and Lockheed Martin, for example, say they continue to monitor the situation but plan to attend. Raytheon also confirmed it will participate, but noted that status could change if the situation worsens. 

Governments also faced a dilemma over the weekend as the viral outbreak continued to spread. Russian state media reported that its largest industry players, including Rostec, United Aircraft Corp. and Roscosmos, have dropped out of the event. In Washington, U.S. government officials traded phone calls over the weekend, but as of Feb. 3 still planned to attend the show as scheduled, with appearances at the event by Defense Undersecretary Ellen Lord and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

As industries and governments grappled with the implications, the easiest decisions on attendance at the show were likely in China. The Singapore government banned anyone with a Chinese passport from crossing the border starting on Feb. 2, likely ruling out participation by Chinese industry leaders AVIC and Comac. 

Airshow organizers in Singapore released a statement on Jan. 29, addressing concerns about viral exposure during the event. Doctors and medics will be on standby at the show to attend to ill visitors, the release said. The organizers also urged anyone who is already sick with any illness to not attend “for the well-being of all other visitors.”

The public cancellations have been concentrated around the business aviation industry, with three of the four declared exhibitor dropouts coming from that sector. Such companies depend on meeting with potential customers, who in this case may have decided to stay home.

“There’s always the possibility that their customers and potential customers might have canceled,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group. 

But the decision factors are different for other types of companies that have business with the Singaporean government or airlines in the region. 

“For companies, the downside of not going is clear: you can alienate local customers and key decision makers,” Aboulafia said.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.