A sluggish economy and the Pentagon's dislike for all things French is having a chilling effect on this year's Paris Air Show, which has historically been a magnet for U.S. military and civilian aerospace contractors looking to display their wares before an international audience.
Lockheed Martin, Boeing Co., Raytheon and other major manufacturers say they are sending fewer people and generally scaling back their presence at the world's largest aerospace exposition, which will take place June 15-22.
Industry officials attribute their lackluster interest to the worst slump in aviation history, which was precipitated by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Some industry analysts fault the Pentagon, which issued new guidelines this week slashing the number of military planes that will be on display and preventing generals from attending the show. The latter is widely viewed as payback for France's opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq.
"Is that the best way to express your displeasure with the French - to turn over the commercial field of battle to them?" said Joel Johnson, vice president of international affairs for the Aerospace Industry Association, a trade group.
Johnson said the influence of trade shows on sales has waned over the years as the industry has consolidated and the volume of new designs has diminished.
But the Paris show remains a top networking event, allowing defense contractors to hold literally hundreds of meetings with both U.S. and foreign buyers in just a few days. Such meetings would otherwise take months to accomplish.
Without top-ranking military officials attending, defense contractors will have one less reason to attend, Johnson said.
"That's part of what's hard to get across to some of our policy-makers," Johnson said. "It's not a French event. It's the world's largest networking opportunity of the global aerospace industry and its customers in 2003."
Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin said it plans to attend the event, but will scale back.
"We've been scaling back our presence at trade shows throughout the last few years," said Jeff Adams, a spokesman for the company.
Lockheed sent 450 people to the show in 1997. This year it is sending 150. Adams said the company takes the Pentagon's guidance into consideration when deciding what and who to send to the show, but its declining presence is "mainly for cost reasons."
A spokesman for Northrop Grumman could not be reached yesterday.
Raytheon Corp., a maker of missiles and a variety of electronics and aircraft, said it has not decided how big its display will be in Paris. But it will be less than in past years.
"It will be reduced to some degree, with that degree to be determined for cost reasons," said James Fetig, a spokesman for the company.
A spokesman for Boeing, which reported a $478 million loss yesterday, said it is in the final planning stages for the show. In past years, the plane maker dueled with rival Airbus Industrie to see who could announce the biggest new contracts at the air show.
In recent years, Boeing has cut its trade-show budget and made a policy of announcing new contracts at the time they are reached, rather than going for a big public relations victory in Paris.
"We've been in the process of scaling back anyhow to kind of match the utility of air shows for the company," said John Dern, a Boeing spokesman.
Johnson, the aerospace association executive, said some companies have decided to just stay home altogether.
Defense and aerospace contractor General Dynamics and Textron Inc., maker of planes and helicopters, are staying away from the show for economic reasons, he said.
In all, Johnson expects to see U.S. companies trim their presence in Paris by about 20 percent to 25 percent compared with previous years.
Analysts don't see any economic fallout from the Pentagon's decision or the declining U.S. presence in Paris.
The aviation market is already battered, said Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst for JSA Research Inc. And defense buyers aren't likely to be influenced by the air show, anyway.
"Generally, U.S. weapons are the weapons of choice if you can get them," he said. "I don't think it will mean an awful lot."