Some airshows in 2021 have been canceled. Others have been scaled back. In Chicago, the annual lakefront Air & Water show there in August was “re-imagined”—in the words of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office—meaning that every act except the Navy’s Blue Angels was eliminated. Nevertheless, healthy crowds headed to the city’s beaches to view the military jet team. While, near shore, a thick line of pleasure boats gathered from the notorious “Play Pen” area off Oak Street Beach all the way north to Belmont Harbor, some 3.6 miles away.
But Chicago’s reticence—the city had originally planned to scrap its 2021 airshow altogether—is proving the exception to the rule. After a dismal 2020 brought on by Covid-19 cancellations, airshows are back and in full vigor. Post-pandemic airshows are recording some of their best attendance records in years, according to John Cudahy, executive director of the International Council of Air Shows.
Perhaps the best example was this year’s annual EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Canceled last year due to the pandemic, this summer’s show drew 608,000—its third-best attendance record ever. And those numbers would have undoubtedly been higher had Wisconsin’s Fox Valley not been lashed with particularly destructive thunderstorms in the middle of the week-long show.
“In the context of Oshkosh and outside that context it has been a pretty encouraging summer,” Cudahy said. “Attendance is way up all over the place. Some of that is people wanting to get out after 15 months of Covid restrictions but it feels bigger than that. There was a show over the July 4th weekend in Battle Creek, Michigan. Even though they didn’t have a jet team, they had more people than they have ever had.
“They broke all records—people, parking, food. In a year where your intuition might suggest it would be a little bit light it was the exact opposite,” Cudahy added, citing record numbers at shows from Moses Lake, Washington, to suburban Nashville to Duluth, Minnesota, to Ocean City, Maryland. The airshow in Kansas City was sold out.
Things are looking up at the performer level, too. While some performers may ultimately hang up their wings given pandemic uncertainty, Cudahy has yet to hear of anything official in that regard. Harvey Meek of the Phillips 66 Aerostar demonstration team said the team is already lining up bookings for 2022, much earlier than expected even before Covid came on the scene.
The Aerostars, who fly a trio of Extra 300s and flew just one show in 2020—a drive-in show in Houston—will fly 70 percent of their usual number of airshows in 2021 and are looking forward to a full schedule next year. Meek said that compared to the shows the team flew in 2019, crowds so far this year are “definitely larger. People want to get out of the house and return back to a normal life.”
The Aerostars have been together for 20 years and managed to keep their sponsorship through the pandemic. “Phillips 66 has been there with us all along. It is not good times that measure a relationship, it’s the challenging times. We are highly encouraged by that,” Meek said.
Cudahy concurs with Meek. “People are eager to get back out again.” But he thinks more than just Covid-induced cabin fever is involved.
“I have come out of the pandemic with a different perspective on how our business impacts the public,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with what happens when there aren’t any shows. Without any show to fly in last year the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and other assets were used as morale boosters for hospital workers and for other public service workers. Civilian warbird pilots got engaged to do the same thing.
“I was shocked at how much press they got and the crowds they drew. The American public remains fascinated with aviation. Getting on an airliner is not the same as watching an airplane fly in three dimensions. The last 18 months have reminded me that is as true now as it was 50 years ago. It says good things about our business this year into next year,” Cudahy noted.
He also thinks the military has developed a renewed appreciation of airshows as a public relations tool with the larger public. Cudahy said that military participation in shows peaked in 2011 and after disappearing altogether in the wake of federal budget sequestration in 2013—a move he called “devastating to our industry”—came roaring back with enthusiasm beginning in 2014.
The reason? General officers told Cudahy that, without airshows, they lost their ability to talk to the American people. “There aren’t a lot of places that the Air Force, Navy, and Marines get to go out and remind the public why they pay their taxes to pay for F-35 fighters and B-1 bombers,” Cudahy said.
While the airshow industry is buoyed by this year’s bounce-back, longer-term concerns remain with regard to how to engage a younger demographic, an issue that Cudahy said is not specific to airshows. “We are trying to figure out how to get single people and young families to come out. We’re looking at putting more experiential things on the ramp to get people participating more as opposed to just watching.”