Aerospace magazine editor, Tim Robinson runs down a list of high-flying power players of the aviation industry for CNN.

Editor’s Note: Tim Robinson is the Editor of Aerospace International, the flagship magazine of the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) in London. For over ten years he has covered civil aerospace, military aviation and space. He also blogs: RAeS Insight blog and tweets as @RAeSTimR. He writes for CNN about the key players at the Farnborough Airshow. Follow CNN coverage of this year’s Farnborough Airshow.

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As Farnborough 2012 kicks off, aerospace expert Tim Robinson breaks down the power players

Find out who's who in the world of aviation and why they are important aerospace figures

CNN  — 

Sir Richard Branson – Virgin Group

Sir Richard Branson

Balloons, airlines and now, spaceflight. There’s no doubt that Virgin entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has aviation in his blood.

Having conquered lighter-than-air and passenger air travel, he has now set his sights on operating the world’s first ‘spaceline’ with Virgin Galactic.

Unpowered test flights mean that his sub-orbital spaceplane SpaceShipTwo is counting down to its first commercial flight (and Branson, along with his mother Eve, aims to be on it).

At Farnborough he is showing off a full-size mock-up of this space vehicle – giving the public on this side of the Atlantic a chance to see it and share in the excitement. Branson is also tipped to announce Virgin Galactic Cargo at the air show, which would use elements of his sub-orbital space tourism system to provide a responsive, lower-cost system for mini satellites.

For would-be space tourists, the ticket price ($200,000) for a few minutes of weightlessness may be high, but Branson has already signed up around 500 customers, including Professor Stephen Hawking, Angelina Jolie and advertising guru Trevor Beattie.

At this stage space tourism may be more like an extreme adventure sport, than air travel as we know it, but pioneering Virgin Galactic will be a key step in opening up spaceflight for all.

Watch: What’s hot at this year’s Farnborough Airshow?

Steven Udvar-Hazy – Air Lease Corporation

Steven Udvar-Hazy

Why buy an expensive, quickly depreciating asset like a modern jetliner – when you can rent?

This is the philosophy that has turned Hungarian-born Steven Udvar-Hazy into a billionaire and key player on the global aviation scene, creating the giant International Lease Finance Corporation (ILFC) in 1973.

Having now moved on to found a new leasing company, ALC (Air Lease Corp), he is building this up and will be on the lookout for more deals – he spent roughly $10bn at the previous Farnborough show in 2010 building up ALC’s portfolio.

His bulk buying power and insight into what airlines really need, rather than what they would like, make him a valued and highly influential customer for Airbus and Boeing – and he is not reticent about telling manufacturers about aircraft what they should be building.

Having been pressing Boeing to make the leap with a clean sheet new single-aisle airliner – Hazy is now rumored to be ready to place the first lessor order for up to 100 Boeing 737 MAXs – which could be announced at Farnborough.

With leasing allowing airlines to mix and match fleets and to trade up to the latest fuel-efficient aircraft quickly – the worlds’ leased airliner fleet is set to keep expanding – on the model pioneered by Udvar-Hazy.

His ultra-sharp business sense is matched by his love of aviation – having donated $66m to the Smithsonian to fund the National Air & Space museum that bears his name.

Read more: Virgin Galactic spaceship to make Farnborough debut

Elon Musk – SpaceX

Elon Musk

Electric cars, space rockets and retiring on Mars. If there is ever a real-life Tony Stark it is Elon Musk, founder of new space company ‘SpaceX’. (Indeed Musk appeared in a cameo role in Iron Man 2).

Having made his money from creating PayPal, Musk is now revolutionizing space access, with his Falcon rockets promising lower-cost per kg into orbit as well as taking over from NASA in regular resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

Earlier this year his Dragon capsule made history by becoming the first private spacecraft to dock with the ISS and then return to Earth. But his ambitions don’t end in low-Earth orbit – Musk’s goal is opening up manned Mars missions in the next 10 to 20 years.

It is this vision of commercial spaceflight, along with a track record of success, that is making SpaceX the destination for the best and brightest MIT graduates – a role that NASA used to occupy.

Rocket science is hard – but the way in which Musk and SpaceX are making it look effortless to outsiders makes him one to watch.

Tom Enders – EADS

Tom Enders

How many aerospace CEOs check their products by skydiving out of the back of one? German EADS chief Tom Enders did when he parachuted out of the back of an A400M transport aircraft.

Former paratrooper Enders did it in his previous role as head of aircraft maker Airbus, when he steered the company successfully in the post-Noel Forgeard era – helping to eliminate the national divisions that had held the company back and restoring customer trust in the company after A380 delays.

Now installed as CEO of parent group EADS, Enders will be focusing on the civil airline sector on development of Airbus’s carbon-fibre airliner – the A350XWB, as well as delivering the huge backlog of orders that Airbus has built up – particularly in the single-aisle segment, where the A320neo has been a runway success.

To that end, Airbus has recently announced it will expand its global footprint westwards, adding a fourth final assembly line in Alabama – and making a strategic move right into Boeing’s backyard to aim at the U.S. airline market. On military products, the outlook is less rosy – the A400M is needed badly – but its non-flying display status at the show will be something of a sore point for Enders.

Finally, as EADS chief Enders will also be tackling the challenges of Eurofighter sales after losing the India fighter order, as well as whether the group attempt to join Anglo-French drone efforts, or goes it alone.

Infographic: Up in the air: Industry in numbers

Jim McNerney - Boeing

Jim McNerney

Head of the giant aerospace concern that is Boeing, Jim McNerney has been CEO since 2005 – and oversees Boeing’s varied portfolio of civil airliner, military aircraft and space products. This Farnborough, (with commercial airplanes chief Jim Albraugh stepping down in favour of Ray Conner) Boeing will be in sales mode for its civil products, with its new narrow-body offering, the 737MAX and the revamped 747-8i.

McNerney will want to hit the target of 1,000 MAX orders by the end of the year, and Farnborough will be a key place to get the message across to potential buyers and announce sales.

The company will also be boosted by the first air show appearance in airline colors of the much anticipated, but delayed 787 Dreamliner, which will take part in the daily flying display.

Like Airbus, McNerney also faces the challenge of ramping up 737 and 787 production to meet the demand from airlines – as well as exploring a revamp of the best-selling 777. In defense, McNerney faces the looming dagger in the US that is ‘sequestration’ or across the board government defense cuts.

Here Boeing’s response has not been to go into retreat, but to aggressively target export sales for its military products – especially for aircraft such as the C-17, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and V-22 as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) solutions like drones.

This seems to be paying off already - in the past 5 years Boeing Defense’s international revenues have jumped from 7% to 25%.

Marcus Bryson – chief GKN Aerospace

Marcus Bryson

He’s not a semi-household name like the others, but Marcus Bryson, CEO and President of Britain’s GKN Aerospace will be going to Farnborough this year having secured a major deal and strategic aim – with its recent $987m acquisition of engine supplier Volvo Aero.

This boosts his GKN Aerospace business as a whole to 40% of the company (the rest of GKN is automotive) and positions it as a ‘Super Tier 1’ supplier with a global reach.

With products that span both civil and defense, and which include composite structures for Airbus, fighter canopies for Lockheed Martin, as well as exploiting new technologies such as 3D printing for aerospace, GKN exemplifies the kind of hi-tech, highly-skilled export-focused manufacturing the UK Government would like to see more of. It’s move into increasing its aero engine business was a long-term goal in expanding the range of products it supplies.

In pictures: 48 years of Farnborough airshow

Akbar Al Baker – Qatar Airways

Akbar Al Baker

The forthright CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker has transformed an airline from a previously little-known Gulf state airline into a global carrier that oozes luxury and by placing big orders now finds himself a key figure in the aviation world.

His pronouncements at air shows are legendary and grab headlines, but can make aircraft manufacturers squirm – when he has, in the past bluntly told them (and the world’s media) what was wrong with their aircraft.

He is also known to drive a hard bargain in negotiations. Indeed it was his desire to see the 787 fly in Qatar colors at the show that was probably critical to Boeing breaking a 28-year rule of not flying its airliners in airshows.

Along with fellow Gulf airline CEOs, Tim Clarke (Emirates) and James Hogan (Eithad) Al Baker has a significant hand in influencing both Airbus and Boeing’s wide body product development as these fast growing carriers, which sit on the crucial geographic link between Europe and Asia-Pacific become global airlines.

The airliner manufacturers may not like what Al Baker says – but they listen hard.

Tony Fernandes – Air Asia

Tony Fernandes

An airline CEO who gets his hands dirty and mucks in with baggage handling? That would be AirAsia’s chief Tony Fernandes, who combines a highly personable nature with a cast-iron business vision that is sweeping across Asia-Pacific – low-cost air travel for the masses.

This year he picked up his 100th Airbus A320 for Air Asia – the fastest-growing airline in Asia-Pacific.

Ten years ago as former record executive, Fernandes was looking for a new outlet for his incredible energy, when he spotted easyJet founder Stelios on TV. The rest, as they say, is history,.

In the past decade Malaysia-based Air Asia has not only grown massively, but also Fernandes has created spin–off affiliate airlines Thai AirAsia, Indonesia AirAsia and Air Asia Philippines as well as Air Asia Japan – that give a distinct Air Asia common brand.

So far his only misstep has been long-haul low-cost Air Asia X, (which awaits Airbus’ new A350XWB to be profitable) and an aborted share swap with Malaysian Airlines.

And while Fernandes is a canny business operator – his low-cost AirAsia brand is fresh, funky and fun – engaging and winning over customers. (In the aftermath of the 2005 Bali bomb the airline was the first to re-establish flights and gave away free tickets to boost tourism).

But it is not just passengers who have been won over. With 175 Airbus A320s ordered, last year he stunned the Paris Airshow with a giant purchase of 200 Airbus A320neos and has hinted he may add another 50 airliners on top of that.

The pent-up demand for air travel in Asia-Pacific means that other airlines are now racing to catch up with Fernandes’ lead, in the most dynamic civil aviation sector.

Quiz: Test your aviation knowledge

Serge Dassault –Dassault Group

Serge Dassault

Not many aerospace executives can boast their family name in the company, but Serge Dassault, Chairman and Chief Executive of the Dassault Group can.

Having built up a personal fortune, and with interests in politics and media, the well-connected Dassault is probably the one of the last ‘elder statesman’ in European aviation.

One of the French elite, Dassault’s aviation interests split into civil (with its Dassault Falcon family of high-end business jets) and its Mirage and Rafale fighters. While business aviation may be flat at the moment, this year Dassault scored a massive win over the Eurofighter consortium when its Rafale fighter was selected by India for a 126-aircraft procurement.

However, beyond that, the distinguished Dassault may have concerns over the future of the European combat aircraft industry – which is facing squeezed military budgets.

A tie-up with the UK on future Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) development is set to be firmed up at Farnborough, which will see Dassault and Britain’s BAE Systems collaborate on a new armed UAV and potentially pool their efforts in stealth unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) technology too.

Michael O’Leary - Ryanair

Michael O'Leary

Love him or hate him – there’s no doubt that Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary steals the headlines when it comes to air travel, whether it is ‘paying for on-board toilets’ or considering ‘standing room only’ flights.

A self-confessed anti-‘aerosexual’ (his words), his larking about in dressing up as the Pope, or wearing a bikini at press conferences disguises an extremely shrewd operator who has changed the face of European air travel with his low-cost approach, outmanoeuvred rivals and forced legacy carriers to evolve.

His strategy relies on a young fleet, working the aircraft hard and then selling on quickly to maximise investment.

However, after securing mega deals in the past, Ryanair has run into the challenge of both difficult conditions in the eurozone and in both Airbus and Boeing wising up to him playing both of them against each other in the search for a better bargain.

To that end he has begun flirting with China’s COMAC about its new single-aisle airliner, the C919 and last year at Paris signed an MoU to collaborate on development.

For a man who normally stays clear of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of aviation – this seems an odd move – leading some to speculate that this is O’Leary taking brinkmanship to new levels in getting a better offer from Airbus or Boeing.

Others are not so sure and wonder if there is one person who would be bold enough to provide the breakthrough in Western sales for the C919 and destroy Airbus’s and Boeing’s cosy duopoly – it would be O’Leary.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tim Robinson.