ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and former US secretary of state and defence chief Alexander Haig were among the visitors to the fifth China Air Expo which opened yesterday in Beijing. But the People's Liberation Army (PLA) security cadres had their toughest job keeping the public from over-running the Airbus Industrie stand when word spread that the firm was handing out the show's most attractive freebies. Exhibitors at the expo - battening down the hatches from early in the day as the give-away hunters went berserk - said they did not know where the people came from. The expo will not open to the public until later this week. There was a mad rush in the first hour, with all of the freebies and brochures disappearing - as then did the crowd. If only contracts could be signed so quickly, one visitor observed. Not that a great deal of business is done at events like these. It is really more about making important contacts and showing the face, and there are many familiar faces. With China to add 796 aircraft to its fleet by 2006, it was no surprise to see the big three manufacturers Airbus, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing there in force. The big boys of the engine world - Rolls-Royce, Pratt and Whitney and General Electric - were also highly visible. The Rolls-Royce order book in Asia is now valued at US$1.5 billion, including orders from airlines in China, Japan, Hong Kong and Indonesia. Several more airlines in Asia have yet to make their decision on firm orders. Rolls-Royce said recently it was determined to compete head-on with GE and Pratt and Whitney in the world market, of which Rolls-Royce had a 28 per cent share in the first half of this year. This compared with just eight per cent a decade ago. Much of the new demand has emanated from Asia. At the moment, the engine company is banking heavily on success with its Trent engine range which is designed to power the new generation of twin-engine, wide-bodied aircraft like the Airbus A330 and the Boeing 777. Several airlines have still to make selections - including China Southern, Japan Air Lines for its Boeing 777s, and Korean Air for its A330s. Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co (HAECO), the major shareholder in the new maintenance and engineering joint venture in Xiamen, along with minority shareholder SIA Engineering, was also prominently represented in Beijing. Among the lesser lights, but no less ambitious, was aviation consultancy Avia International - which last year set up Air Ukraine International in Kiev. Avia managing director Derek O'Brien said he wasn't expecting to have the same opportunity in China, but felt his company had a lot to offer in the field of finance and services management. Meanwhile, CAAC officials have confirmed that Beijing has given the green light for mainland airlines to employ all expatriate pilots. To date, only a handful of Russian pilots have been used by Chinese airlines in wet-lease agreements. But despite the critical shortage of pilots, it is unlikely that any will be hired from the major international airlines because of the cost factor, CAAC officials were quoted as saying in the Orient Airlines Association's official magazine, Orient Aviation, which was launched this week. Both Jin Huanzhang and Xu Dongming said the airlines were being given the go-ahead, but neither knew of any airlines which planned to begin recruiting.