Facing stagnation and even economic downturn back home, 11 Florida companies are hawking aviation equipment and training services at the Dubai Airshow, located in a sprawling Arabian desert site that will soon be home to the region's newest mega-airport.
The industry's most lucrative deals are increasingly being inked in the Middle East, and the biennial airshow gives businesses a chance to promote their products globally. Nearly $200 billion in deals have been announced over the first two days. Florida, which has more than 2,000 aviation and aerospace companies operating there, is the only U.S. state represented.
The Florida businesses really are small fish among the 1,055 exhibitors -- including the biggest names in defense and civil aviation -- in the airshow's massive exhibition hall, which is about the size of seven American football fields.
Possibly one of the newest and smallest businesses at the airshow is the family-run Global Turbine Parts based out of Jupiter, Fla. The company, which has five employees, was founded in 2005 and specializes as a broker and supplier of turbine engine parts.
"Look at Dubai. It's one of the fastest growing cities in the world," owner Sergio Azoy said. "There's a big pool for corporate aircraft, which we supply."
His son, Sergio Jr., says they have returned for a second time to the airshow to reinforce their relationship with clients, which include the Dubai military and police.
"For every company in order to grow, you got to take risks and take a gamble and invest in yourself," he said
In just an example of the industry's potential growth, Boeing has forecast a long-term demand globally for 35,280 new airplanes, valued at $4.8 trillion. The company says that in the Middle East alone, airlines will require 2,610 new airplanes over the next 20 years, worth an estimated $550 billion.
Raymond Deptula of Bristow Academy helps manage a military training program at the helicopter flight school, which has already trained pilots around the world for a number of jobs, including emergency medical evacuation and getting people on and off oil rigs for production and exploration. The academy has four campuses across the United States with its largest presence in Titusville, Fla. It has been training pilots in the Gulf Arab region for about 15 years and has also provided replica military training for U.S. allies, including low-level navigation techniques and night vision goggle flying.
Gulf Arab countries are speeding up purchases of helicopters and other aircraft, creating an urgent need to train pilots to fly those aircraft. Deptula says being at the airshow gives him a better understanding of those training requirements and gets the company on the radar of potential clients.
The global competition is fierce, which is why Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development organization, takes part in almost every major airshow around the world. The organization has participated in the Dubai Airshow for at least 10 years. It pitched the small- and medium-sized businesses a spot in the Florida pavilion, and also helped them design their booths.
"We like to think we are very aggressive in promoting our target industries," Manuel Mencia, the senior vice president of International Trade & Business Development at Enterprise Florida, said. "We feel the Middle East has great potential for Florida and Dubai is a great gateway to Southeast Asia, especially India."
Mencia said Florida's exports of aviation-related equipment comprise more than $6 billion of the nearly $90 billion in total state merchandise exports. The organization says Florida ranks sixth among the U.S. states in exports.
While most of Florida's leading export markets are in Central and South America, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the top 10. Enterprise Florida says around $7.5 billion of merchandise was exported to those countries in 2012, including millions of dollars in civilian aircraft and parts.
"It's proven that export creates jobs," Mencia said, adding that around 1 million jobs in Florida depend on international trade and foreign investment.
Some of the country's largest aerospace companies have opened Florida offices, such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins, Honeywell and Lockheed Martin. The state is also home to the military's Central Command in Tampa, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as the Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in South America and the Caribbean.
NASA's launch operations have been in Cape Canaveral, Fla., since the first human space flight in 1968. The surrounding area has been hit hard economically since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.
Patrick Murphy, director of training at Sunrise Flight Academy, says 20 possible clients are interested in joining the six-month commercial pilot training program after approaching his booth at the airshow. The academy has campuses in Orlando and Jacksonville and has trained several hundred students from Saudi Arabia and dozens from the U.A.E. over the years, he said.
Murphy says the United States has one of the world's best air traffic control systems and safety records, making it ideal for pilot training.
"We already do business in the region and want to do more," he said.
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