SPIEF DIARY: Back in the USSR — a surreal tour of the St. Petersburg forum

The Beatles in their pomp around the time that they recorded ‘Back in the USSR’. (Reuters)
Updated 07 June 2019

SPIEF DIARY: Back in the USSR — a surreal tour of the St. Petersburg forum

  • I found myself humming ‘Back in the USSR’ by the Beatles as I ambled through The Expoforum, my mind a jumble of Cyrillic letters
  • There was a media industry corner (not to be confused with the media center), where TASS, Gazeta, Sputnik news and RT nestled closely together as if for mutual support

ST. PETERSBURG: The Expoforum on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, where the city’s International Economic Forum is being held, is cavernous.
Walking the main thoroughfare from hall D1, where many of the big set pieces take place, to H, where the media center is located, was exhausting, but the journey could be profitable. I watched local Russian journalists, who have obviously “done” the forum before, time their trip so that they fell into the slipstream of one of the VIPs attending the event, shoving a microphone in their face and firing off a question or two. Sometimes, it worked.
That central artery links the exhibition halls and maze of meeting rooms that spin off the forum center, and where much of the real bilateral business is done. It can be confusing at first finding your way around this warren of rooms and corridors, but again — watch the Russians. They know all the short cuts.
(I never made it to halls A to C, by the way, because it would have required a bus or taxi trip).
The exhibition halls themselves are like a journey through the lands of the former Soviet Union, from Minsk in the west to Vladivostok in the east. I found myself humming “Back in the USSR” by the Beatles as I ambled through, my mind a jumble of Cyrillic letters.
There were some familiar places. Moscow and St. Petersburg had stands like small towns, with a real Moscow metro train on show at the capital’s stand.
Others — like Sverdlovsk, Kaluga and Krasnodar — I could take a fair stab at on a map, though the Siberian Federal District threw up some questions, and the Udmurt Republic, Dobrograd, and Penza could just as easily have been on the moon for all my knowledge of them.
Some of them may actually have been corporate names, rather than places. For example, Cherkizovo sounded like a village from a Tolstoy novel, but turned out to be Russia’s No. 1 meat producer.
The further you went through the halls, the more surreal it became. One stand had a lit-up map of shipping routes just south of the North Pole, almost like a bus schedule, though they cannot all be open yet, unless global warming has had an even more dramatic effect there than we thought.
Hidden behind a stand devoted to the “International Year of the Periodic Table” was one labeled “Invest in the Leningrad Region.” I thought that didn’t exist any more?
The halls were separated by courtyards, where exhibitors crammed their wares. Mercedes, for example, had a big indoor stand, and an even bigger one outside, with lots of glittering cars to play with.
It was located some way from the stand of a Middle East airline (which will remain nameless), sitting all alone, totally isolated from its neighbors.
There was a media industry corner (not to be confused with the media center), where TASS, Gazeta, Sputnik news and RT nestled closely together as if for mutual support.
“Question more” was the RT slogan, but the nice woman on duty couldn’t answer when I asked if there was a Pravda or Izvestia stand anywhere. Probably my accent.
Bloomberg, in contrast, was away from media colleagues in the main corridor, next door to the Russian Direct Investment Fund — obviously a symbiotic relationship.
Most gobsmacking of all was the Kalashnikov stand, where you could pose for photographs with some of the legendary firm’s deadly, though unloaded, products.
After all that mind scrambling, it was a relief to get back to the familiarity of the two Saudi stands — Aramco and SABIC. No flashy gimmicks, no air hostesses, just familiar corporate branding and sound messaging: “Where energy is opportunity” and “Chemistry that matters.” Warm, comforting words in St. Petersburg.

  • Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai


Boeing’s new CEO orders rethink on key jetliner project

Updated 38 min 10 sec ago

Boeing’s new CEO orders rethink on key jetliner project

  • Traditionally toe-to-toe with Europe’s Airbus SE, Boeing has fallen behind in sales for the largest category of single-aisle planes

LONDON: Boeing’s new CEO has sent the aerospace giant back to the drawing board on proposals for a new mid-market aircraft, effectively shelving in their current form plans worth $15 billion-$20 billion that had been overtaken by the 737 MAX crisis.

A decision on whether to launch a New Midsize Airplane (NMA) seating 220-270 passengers, which seemed imminent barely a year ago, had already been postponed as Boeing gave all its attention to the grounding of the smaller 737 MAX after two fatal crashes.

But days after taking the helm with a mandate to lift Boeing out of its 10-month-old reputational crisis, CEO Dave Calhoun said the competitive playing field had changed.

“Since the first clean sheet of paper was taken to it, things have changed a bit ... the competitive playing field is a little different,” he told journalists on Wednesday. 

“We’re going to start with a clean sheet of paper again; I’m looking forward to that,” Calhoun said.

He also spoke of a fresh approach to the market.

A Boeing spokesman said Calhoun had ordered a new study on what kind of aircraft was needed. New aircraft typically take 6-7 years or more to bring to market once a decision is made, though Boeing aims to shorten that in part through digital technology and new business models designed around the NMA.

Calhoun “has asked the team to do an assessment of the future market and what kind of airplane is needed to meet the future market,” spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Noting that the original assessments on the NMA were made about two and a half years ago, he said the new study would “build upon what has been learned ... in design and production.”

In further evidence of a change of pace, people familiar with the matter said a meeting between Boeing and a major potential supplier, originally scheduled for next week, had been abruptly canceled with no new date set.

That contrasts with the approach just weeks ago when Boeing was still presenting new details of the NMA to some airlines, including a working logo — “theNMA” — and details of an “advanced composite” structure, according to a slide seen by Reuters.

The NMA had been designed to address a slender gap between single-aisle workhorse jets like the 737 MAX and long-haul wide-body jets like the 787.

But most of the effort revolved around a new production system designed not only to support the NMA but to lay the groundwork for the next single-aisle aircraft after the 737 MAX.

Calhoun said he expected the MAX, whose return to service was delayed again earlier this week, to resume its previous place in the market and remain in service for a generation.

Traditionally toe-to-toe with Europe’s Airbus SE, Boeing has fallen behind in sales for the largest category of single-aisle planes, such as the 200-240-seat Airbus A321neo, which overlaps with the niche being targeted by the NMA.

By delaying a decision on the NMA, Boeing already risked losing the sweetest part of the market, especially after Airbus seized contracts with two major US airlines, analysts said.

Analysts have also questioned whether Boeing, facing costs equivalent to a new program to repair the MAX crisis, as well as delays on its large new 777X jet whose maiden flight is set for Friday, would have appetite for such a costly project now.