WASHINGTON — When Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg heads to the Farnborough Airshow near London next month, he’ll tackle his usual tasks: trying to win new airplane orders and more aerospace work for the U.S. manufacturing giant.
He will have an additional mission at this year’s show, where he’ll help lead the centennial celebration for the iconic U.S. aerospace giant launched by William Boeing in 1916.
“Having this role as we approach our centennial, you have this sense of humbleness about the significance of the company,” Muilenburg said in an interview with USA TODAY. “You think about what happened over the last 100 years. We went literally from walking on Earth to walking on the moon … from riding horses to flying in airplanes and spaceships.”
That legacy will be something Boeing puts on display at Farnborough, where the company’s “birthday” fortuitously falls in the middle of the biennial airshow. The show, which alternates annually with its sister show in Paris, is one of the most important events in aviation.
Even before Farnborough, Boeing had kicked off a year-long promotional blitz for the anniversary of its founding date: July 15, 1916.
Farnborough organizers unveiled an aerial display that pays homage to Boeing’s roots, and flights by the B-17 bomber and P-51 Mustang are likely. Boeing might send its new 737 MAX for what would be its debut appearance at a major airshow.
That the Farnborough Airshow also will mark its 100-year anniversary in 2016 will add to the festive theme this year.
Still business to do at Farnborough
Centennials aside, the show will feature many of its usual story lines.
There will be displays of military and civilian aircraft and technology, allowing manufacturers to show off their latest and greatest products to prospective big-ticket buyers.
On the commercial aviation front, rivals Boeing and Airbus will seek airline orders — and headlines — for their passenger planes as they battle for supremacy in that market.
Though the centennial events may help lighten the vibe at the airshow, it’s still all about competition, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Virginia-based Teal Group.
“Frankly, what matters more is booking business,” Aboulafia said. “It’s been a long time since airshows were over the top. There’s a lot more business being done than mere parties.”
In a year in which Boeing hopes to leverage its centennial, Aboulafia warned Boeing’s buzz could be dampened by what’s expected to be a weak year for overall orders at the airshow.
“This does not appear to be a great year to book business,” Aboulafia said. “We might get fewer orders than deliveries, which would be the first time in five or six years that’s happened. The positive historical news might be a little bit sidelined by concerns about the market itself.”
Boeing’s centennial in the spotlight
Regardless of how plane orders stack up, 2016 could be a difficult year for rivals to wrest the spotlight from Boeing as it celebrates its centennial.
Launched by William Boeing in 1916, the company has become the face of American aviation, growing into a global behemoth that’s one of the USA’s largest exporters.
The Boeing name graces flying machines such as the new-age Dreamliner — the company’s latest commercial passenger aircraft that revolutionized the use of composites and has since opened dozens of airline routes around the world.
There’s the 747 — the world’s first jumbo jet — that may be the one single plane with which Boeing is most associated. And the 737, the best-selling commercial aircraft in history — and one that’s still going strong.
On the defense side, there are a range of military aircraft in Boeing’s portfolio, some of which will be on display at Farnborough.
“It’s a global company,” Aboulafia said. “Everyone thinks in terms of an American icon, but it’s a global company. Sending that message of being an international aircraft producer is very important at shows like this.”
Boeing’s century-long rise to become one of the world’s pre-eminent manufacturers is something that stokes pride in Muilenburg, who started at the company as an intern in 1985.
“You think about the transformation that happened along the way,” Muilenburg said, “the introduction of the commercial jet age, the introduction of all-new composite aircraft. These transformational things are extraordinary events and things that we’ve been involved in.”
Boeing faces its own transformational challenges as it enters its second century.
The company’s defense business remains important, even as commercial aircraft sales account for an increasingly larger chunk of Boeing’s business.
Elsewhere, Boeing is aggressively courting new business in outer space, which includes everything from rocket and satellite technology to deep space exploration and even space tourism.
“I’m not sure how many people in the country know it, but we are today building the rocket that’s going to take the first human to Mars,” Muilenburg said enthusiastically. “It’s about 50% bigger than the Saturn V that took humans to the moon.”
Muilenburg predicted “low-Earth-orbit space travels … will be a groundbreaker to a broader low-Earth-orbit market as more destinations evolve.”
“These could be tourism destinations (or) industrial destinations where you can take advantage of zero-gravity manufacturing,” he said. “Efficient low-Earth-orbit space travel will become a real bona fide marketplace. And we aim to lead in that marketplace.”
Most Americans probably associate Boeing with its commercial airplanes — the ones that fly them to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving or across the Atlantic for an exotic summer vacation. That remains the top overall anchor for the company.
“Our commercial airplane business today is 60% to 70% of our business base,” Muilenburg said. “It’s got a great historic past and huge growth opportunities ahead. That is at our very core, and we’ll continue to build and leverage that.”