The Asia-Pacific aviation industry's slow recovery from the pandemic amid government restrictions will cast a shadow over the Singapore Airshow next week, though there are nascent signs of improvement as concerns over the Omicron variant recede.
The biennial event has book ended the pandemic, with the 2020 air show disrupted by the virus emerging from China and the latest show coming as the industry attempts to plot a way out of its biggest-ever crisis.
International passenger travel in the region was down 93 per cent from pre-pandemic levels last year, leaving airlines heavily reliant on freight for revenue, and the Chinese outbound tourism market remains closed.
But there are signs of a rebound this year, Skyscanner booking data shows, as destinations such as Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia reopen to more vaccinated tourists without quarantine.
Military purchase intentions are also picking up, as regional economies recover from pandemic-induced slumps and countries look to bolster their capabilities — as highlighted by Indonesia's $8.1 billion order for 42 Rafale fighter jets on Thursday.
Major manufacturers such Airbus, Boeing and Lockheed Martin will send senior executives to the Singapore Airshow, which runs from February 15 to 18, using it as an opportunity for rare face-to-face meetings with key commercial and defence customers.
But there will be around two-thirds fewer exhibitors than in 2020 at Asia's biggest aerospace gathering, with the challenges of holding the show mirroring travel difficulties.
Some industry executives decided not to attend, concerned about restrictions including daily testing, no mingling during mealtime, mandatory masks in the tropical heat, as well as hotel isolation if they test positive.
Singapore-based aviation analyst Brendan Sobie said he expected a quiet, locally-oriented gathering with many of the overseas executives holding meetings in the city centre rather than at the more distant show site.
“The concern from many exhibitors is a lack of customers visiting,” Mr Sobie said of the show.
The Asia-Pacific region accounts for 35 per cent of the world's commercial aircraft fleet but only 4 per cent of order announcements at air shows over the last decade were made in Singapore, according to broker Jefferies, partly because the event is held before shows in Europe and Dubai.
During the pandemic, most Asian airlines have focused on deferring deliveries and handing back planes to lessors rather than placing fresh orders, though Singapore Airlines in December signed a preliminary deal with Airbus for seven A350 freighters that would involve reducing orders for passenger planes.
Boeing last month launched a freighter version of its 777X wide-body that will compete against the A350 freighter.
The new generation planes will help cut carbon emissions, an important focus for the industry as it targets net-zero emissions by 2050 through biofuels and improvements in engine technology.