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Boeing and Airbus Dominate Skies as Air Show Looms Jetliner Output Is at Record Highs, but Incrementalism Is Unofficial Theme of This Year’s Farnborough Exhibition

LONDON—Part arms bazaar, part industrial petting zoo, the Farnborough air show, which kicks off Monday at an airfield in rural England, represents the aerospace community’s annual opportunity to take the pulse of the business of flying.

And with the headwinds of the global economic crisis mostly behind the industry, business is booming again.

Jetliner output at rivals Boeing Co. BA -1.31% and Airbus Group EADSY -3.54% NV is at record highs. The two together are delivering 100 passenger planes of all sizes to the world’s airlines each month. They are also expanding their manufacturing footprints, both in the industrialized and industrializing world, as Airbus adds plants in Tianjin, China, and Mobile, Ala., while Boeing expands in South Carolina.

But underscoring the changing nature of the global economy and the maturity of the aviation industry, incrementalism is the unofficial theme of the show.

Airshows are notable for what’s new and what’s here. What’s also notable is what isn’t here. WSJ’s Jon Ostrower looks at the “no shows” at the Farnborough Air Show, the F-35 Lightning II, Bombardier CSeries and the Mitsubishi’s regional jet.

Neither of the big manufacturers is rolling out revolutionary new aircraft. Instead, Boeing’s showcase model this year is its stretched Dreamliner, a lengthened version of the composite airplane that was certified last month. Airbus, meanwhile, may be making the highest-profile debut of the show, though not with an all-new product. Instead, the Toulouse, France, plane maker is set to unveil an engine upgrade for its 20-year-old A330 using new turbines from Rolls-Royce Holdings RR.LN +1.60% PLC.

The improved A330 promises 14% greater efficiency than the current version. It will still guzzle more fuel than more modern jets, such as the Boeing Dreamliner. But Airbus is betting its lower capital and maintenance costs will draw airline orders.

On Sunday, the sniping between the two rivals was already in full swing. Boeing marketing head Randy Tinseth said the fuel savings Airbus was touting for its A330 were “extraordinarily optimistic.”

Farnborough alternates every year with Paris as host to the industry’s biggest show. Many watchers had pegged this year in England as the event that would mark the end of the Boeing and Airbus duopoly. New entrants from Canada, Japan and China were all aiming to have made splashes that would have put them at least nipping at the heels of the jetliner giants.

But they have all faced technical and production delays on their new products. The Bombardier Inc. BBD.B.T +0.40% CSeries, long-viewed as the most serious challenger to the pair, suffered an engine failure during ground testing in May and hasn’t flown since. Engine maker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp. UTX -0.31% , said Sunday it is now testing a modification that will allow the jet to return to flying within weeks.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to flock to the show during the four-day fair. For a lucky few attendees who scored nearby bed-and-breakfast rooms—which go for about $515 a night—the show is a pleasant walk away. For the rest of the industry, Monday will start off in packed commuter trains from central London or as part of a slow caravan of hired cars snaking into the airfield grounds.

Over the years, the event has morphed along with the industry. Meetings aren’t just about wooing potential customers any more. As the industry has become more interconnected, with suppliers spanning the globe, the get-together serves as much as caffeine-fueled staff and contractor meetings. Amid the screech of jets taking off and landing, manufacturers are just as often huddling with program partners as they are trying to sell planes.

But the show is still one big trade fair. Mom-and-pop aerospace outfits vie for the attention of those companies with sprawling custom-built private pavilions. Some of these airstrip “chalets” feature soundproof walls, as much to keep private discussions private as to keep out the roar of jets.

Government officials from around the world mingle with dark-suited executives and uniformed military brass, engaging in a speed-dating-like pace of meetings and cocktail parties that continue into the night at rented-out London landmarks such as the city’s museums.

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