Farnborough Airshow: How the aviation industry is taking flight towards sustainability

At the end of July, the Farnborough International Airshow returned for its first outing since 2018. The Drum met with show organizers and exhibitors to find out how the aviation industry and its trade shows are marketing with a new focus on sustainability.

Most marketers are familiar with a few major events such as Cannes Lions or South by Southwest. Beyond these tentpoles, there is an entire ecosystem of equally massive trade shows, but known to relatively few.

Airshows, for example: huge jamborees, gobbling up millions of dollars in marketing spend (resulting in billions in transactions) and attracting thousands of marketers, among other executives, engineers, suppliers and customers. Shows like the Farnborough International Air Show (FIAS), which according to whoever you ask is the first among them.

FIAS operates every two years. In 2020, the show was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and replaced with an online version.

This year it returned with real people (1,200 media and 4,000 providers from 42 countries on a 500,000 m² site) and real planes (69 of them). Beyond Covid, the show was inevitably dominated by a single theme: sustainability and the industry’s goal for “net zero aviation” by 2050.

The show’s macrodrama is which of the major manufacturers sells the most planes (if you’re counting, Boeing won this year). But this is not a winner-takes-all game; more than a thousand exhibitors are there for a thousand different reasons. We’ve researched five, from new challengers to some of aviation’s biggest players, to find out why it’s worth spending so much time and money to settle in a small town in Hampshire.

The engine of industry: Rolls-Royce

British engine giant Rolls-Royce’s experience over the past two years tells the story of the wider industry. Richard Wray, director of external communications and branding, says aviation performance tends to follow GDP and economic growth because “aviation is one of the things that makes global society work.

In April 2020, engine hours flown – a key metric for the company – fell by 80%. It has since climbed, but still hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels (it will reach that point by 2024 or 2025). Still, Wray describes a dynamic in the proceedings: “The industry is coming out of Covid and you’re seeing people re-hiring and talking about the potential of deals…there’s a lot more optimism.” There is, he says, “a general feeling that the industry is coming out of its shell, coming out of the squat it has been in during Covid”.

Wray doesn’t mince words when it comes to aviation’s role in averting another impending catastrophe: climate catastrophe. “Our industry is based on burning hydrocarbons,” he says. “It’s not a sustainable business, in both senses of the word – long-term sustainability in terms of being able to make money and in the sense of not trashing the planet.”

Rolls-Royce talks about “leading the transition to net zero”. To meet this 2050 goal, Wray says, industry must start acting now – investing in more distant solutions such as hydrogen fuels, and “taking what is already flying and making it compatible with the net zero” by converting engines to run on sustainable aviation fuels.

The challenger: Deutsche Aircraft

Deutsche Aircraft has its own long history as a maintenance company formed to take care of a popular propeller-driven aircraft, the Dornier 328, when its manufacturer went out of business. It was relaunched as a manufacturer in 2019 to bring to market a sustainability-conscious reinvention of this aircraft, the D328eco. 2022 is Deutsche’s first official Farnborough.

It hopes to announce a launch customer for the new aircraft by the end of the year, making this a crucial time. “Showing that we’re there, that visibility, is very important to us,” says Nico Neumann, Deutsche’s COO; as well as “making people aware that we are back in production”.

Although it is built around an aircraft that has been around for decades, the new manufacturer’s focus on more sustainable aviation, according to Neumann, is made possible by its status as a new entrant. “It’s one of the first planes to be designed from a blank piece of paper, in say 20 years…we can do it from the beginning. We can actually be sustainable. We’re trying to achieve the zero emissions, or carbon neutrality, in the aircraft manufacturing process and while the aircraft is operated.”

The industry, says Neumann, now needs to focus on “comprehensive” sustainability – in manufacturing, in flight, in operations and with suppliers. “We want to demonstrate that it is feasible; that we can put action behind words; and that we can have zero emissions and more sustainable aviation in the future.

The premises: QinetiQ

People fly to FIAS from all over the world; some employees of high-tech defense contractor QinetiQ left their own HQ across Farnborough.

However, not everyone is so local; Group Director for Strategic Engagement, Colin Basnett CBE, tells us that “the whole QinetiQ team is up and ready for this”, including teams from the Outer Hebrides and others taking a break in monitoring a satellite en route to Mercury.

“The problem with QinetiQ is that we are a very sophisticated organization in the services we provide,” Basnett explains.

QinetiQ’s presence at the show is designed to explain these services. There are a limited number of explanations you can do through Zoom. “We are all extremely happy to be able to travel again,” says Basnett. “We are human. This human interaction is more meaningful. From a body language perspective, I can tell when my points have landed.

The Qinetiq stall at the Farnborough Airshow

Basnett acknowledges that “we have a very big role to play in sustainability in the future” – especially as organizations facing tougher regulations and ambitions “turn to QinetiQ for that science and technology advantage that helps them achieve their goals”.

The reminder: CAE

The Canadian pilot training specialist has an advantage when it comes to sustainability. More involved in training technologies (like flight simulators) than in aviation proper, it has been carbon neutral since 2020.

It is also unique in another respect: the period since 2020 has been difficult for many in aviation. CAE has grown in that time, primarily through nine M&A actions; its presence at the show doubled from 2018 to 2022.

This year, his 75e anniversary, he used Farnborough to launch a new brand identity and welcomes the opportunity to talk about sustainability credentials. As Nathalie Siphenpghet, head of marketing and strategy, tells us, the airshow is “an opportunity to show the world who we are, what we do and what our history is”.

The titan: Airbus

An industry giant like Airbus has a fittingly huge presence at the show. There is a “pavilion” for guests, with a restaurant (with a French catering team) and a press auditorium for more than 20 press conferences throughout the week. There is a dedicated canteen for their hundreds of employees. And there are indoor and outdoor exhibit areas with a few planes, including one that Tom Cruise hung in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

A model Airbus A400M at the Farnborough Air Show

Airbus welcomes several hundred visitors a day to these areas. “During the Covid crisis, we went to all-digital events. Now that they’re back, they’re so happy to be here,” says exhibitions manager Alexia Pagliarino. And the exhibitors are also delighted to be back: “It is very important for us to be able to physically meet our key customers and present our products.

Sustainable events

The responsibilities of the aviation industry in relation to climate collapse are significant, as are those of the events industry.

Creative brand experience store 2Heads was one of the agencies tasked with translating brands’ sustainability messages into their physical presences at the show, while approaching the design and construction of those presences in a more sustainable way. As director Paul Godwin says, “the goal is to start putting in place contracts that allow for multiple use.”

As such, the agency stores much of its infrastructure – like electricity, chairs, and rugs – in a global network of warehouses; Godwin estimates he spends £500,000 (around $600,000) on storage every year.

Seeing the show more holistically is a theme that goes beyond sustainability: fellow director James Simpkins told The Drum that “it used to be that content and digital were afterthoughts”, but the greats Actors are increasingly using major trade shows to “build a brand rather than build an experience.

Speaking of brands, Gareth Rogers, Managing Director of Farnborough International, said ISAF has “solidified its position as a place to have important conversations about the future of aerospace. As a catalyst for pioneering innovations, we have demonstrated that the industry is setting clear and ambitious plans and that there is new optimism for the future, made possible through strong strategies and collaboration.

“I look forward to seeing the innovation and pioneering partnerships established at the event between exhibitors and leaders continue to thrive.”