Americans in Paris...at the Air Show

Twenty-two states have booths at the Paris Air Show this year.

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby at the Paris Air Show.

From left to right, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby and Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran at the Paris Air Show

The Paris Air Show -- which opened to the public today -- is such a big deal to the aerospace industry, French President François Hollande flew in on an Airbus A400M military transporter to kick things off.

Interestingly, the show also attracts a sizable entourage of American politicians to the City of Lights. The United States has the largest pavilion at the show. At a ribbon cutting ceremony for the U.S. trade display, the French national anthem was followed by a hearty performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” announcing that the Americans had arrived.

Amid all the plane makers, defense companies and parts manufacturers, I met Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby. He’s a regular attendee at the Paris Air Show. This year, he’s leading a delegation of six senators to Paris, including Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski and Iowa’s Tom Harkin. Neither Mikulski’s nor Harkin’s offices would agree to an interview.

Ask an American politician what justifies coming all the way to Paris and Sen. Shelby’s response sounds a lot like everyone else’s.

“There are 400 American companies represented here,” says Shelby, “including people that are tied to thousands of jobs in America.”

Yes, they always cite American jobs, and this at a time of reduced U.S. military spending. The U.S. Air Force decided it couldn't afford to display a single aircraft at the show. The Department of Defense has suspended participation in air shows as a result of budget cuts in Washington.

Marion Blakey, the president of the Aerospace Industries Association, says that makes this international trade show all the more important for American aerospace companies this year.

“The Federal Budget cuts that we’re having in the United States argues for more attention to exporting,” says Blakey.

That pivot towards more exports may already be underway. For example, France has struck a deal to buy MQ-9 Reaper drones made by the California-based company General Atomics. The company declined a request for an interview.

Blakey stresses the importance of American elected officials at the Paris Air Show. In the aerospace and defense business, international deals aren’t just about the price of an aircraft. Blakey says a senator’s handshake instills trust in American products abroad.

“Members of Congress, they understand that we’re going to have to be out there marketing what the United States has to offer very aggressively if we’re going to stay competitive on a worldwide basis,” says Blakey.

But Steve Ellis of the Washington-based group, Taxpayers for Commonsense, takes issue with that.

“We don’t elect these people to actually be hucksters and salesmen of American private sector wares,” says Ellis.

He questions the cost of sending senators to the Paris Air Show.

“Any time we look at these Congressional delegations we have to ask ourselves is this really more like a de facto vacation?” says Ellis. “It is Paris, and they’re still going to the cafes. And they’re still being put up on the taxpayer’s dime in some nice hotel, and wining and dining with their spouse and a bunch of staff.”

None of the Senate offices contacted answered questions on costs. Sen. Harkin’s wife “is accompanying at no additional cost to the government,” his office responded in an email.

However, what’s most noticeable at the air show is the battle between U.S. states for the same American jobs. Twenty-two states have booths at the show this year. I spoke with a number of American governors in Paris, including Martin O’Malley of Maryland, Jay Nixon of Missouri, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma. The office of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley -- who also attended the air show with his wife -- did not respond to numerous requests for an interview. The European plane maker, Airbus, is establishing its first American production facility in Alabama.

While in Paris, governors meet with companies like Boeing and Airbus, and the parts makers that supply them. They offer tax breaks and infrastructure investments in a cutthroat competition to lure work to their states.

“Frankly, for states that aren’t at this show, they’re missing opportunities because when they aren’t here, I am here,” says Gov. Fallin of Oklahoma. “And I am here getting the business.”

Oklahoma expects to spend roughly $50,000 in state funds on sending its delegation to the Paris Air Show, and Fallin says it’s worth every penny.

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby at the Paris Air Show.

From left to right, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby and Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran at the Paris Air Show

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