Bangalore: Nothing interrupts a quiet business chat more than the sound of a Sukhoi fighter jet doing acrobatics near the speed of sound. But at Bangalore’s AeroIndia 2007, the roar of an afterburner, was a metaphor for the clinking of a future cash register.
It was billed as the country’s largest air show ever and the deal-makers were out in full force to live up to the billing. Temporary luxury offices, dubbed chalets, were lined up near the runway, with global companies from Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to state-owned Bharat Electronics Ltd and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, feting their biggest customers, business partners and government officials, with spectacular flying displays, well-stocked bars and gourmet food.
An executive for Bombardier, a Canada-based company that manufactures the most decadent of corporate pleasures, the small business jet, stood outside his palace-like chalet, screaming into his mobile phone.
“Look, if Falcon (a Bombardier competitor) is going to fly the customer on a night-trip to Hyderabad, I have to do the same,” he shouted to a Mumbai colleague. “Just get me a plane.”
Behind him, on the tarmac, five luxury jets stood gleaming in the sun, stealing the limelight from the relatively boring looking medical evacuation chopper standing humbly near them.
That’s Aero India for you, a cross between a high-tech frat party and a boardroom, with big, fast toys, puffed out chests and constant games of one-upmanship. Somewhere in between, big business got done. Very serious sounding memoranda of understanding were signed, very anxious public relations folks kept yanking reporters aside to speak in a lingo that bordered on the undecipherable (“TAAL is opening an MRO for ATRs”).
For the “friends in the media”, as one public relations executive kept calling reporters, a crowded two-room office next to the toilets served as home base. In the Boeing-sponsored media centre, access to the Internet was iffy, the air-conditioning sporadic, and the couches sagged.
With more than 100 reporters from all over India and the world—French broadcasters, Russian wire service reporters and Japanese freelance photographers—gathered together, the air rang with curses for the slow and often non-functional Internet access. Many of the Indian reporters couldn’t get their cellphones to work. The jostling for the some 30 desktop computers sometimes got intense and tempers flared.
The only time the mood perked up was when the high-heeled booth ushers for Klimov, a Russian plane-engine manufacturer, showed up at a press conference. For an event conducted almost entirely in Russian, with reporters from Russian newspapers asking long, complicated questions that even the translator gave up on, the attendance was spectacular.
For India’s aviation world, this was celebrity-sighting heaven at the event that ran five days to Sunday. Kingfisher Airlines’ chairman, Vijay Mallya, was there. Ratan Tata, fresh off his successful Corus bid, flew in a couple of American-made fighter jets, and civil aviation minister Praful Patel got quite patriotic as he compared India’s current civil aviation market (booming, but unprofitable) to that a few years ago (stagnant, but profitable.)
“There was a time when we Indians had to go abroad to see the latest in aviation,” he told a packed conference room. “Now the world has come to India to see what is going on.”
Surreal moments abounded. At a meet-and-greet dinner for an American weapons company, one man spoke at length about his fascination with architecture. Later on, it became clear his job was to design missiles that destroyed buildings completely and surgically. At a radar display, an African military officer took pictures of all the equipment, but when asked by a reporter which country he was from, scurried away. A mainland Chinese delegation, in Bangalore to research digital displays for fighter planes, got into an argument, with their Taiwanese peers.
At exactly five each evening, a stentorian voice boomed across the speakers, ordering people off the grounds of the Yelahanka Air Force base. Outside, thetraffic was murder, the hotel rooms still expensive by any standards, and life just that much less interesting for now in India’s tech capital.