Air show attendance booming

The air show industry is on pace for a 20% increase over 2008 despite – or perhaps because of – the recession.

airshow pic from ICAS Two months into the heart of the 2009 air show season, the industry continues to witness a trend first recognized last summer when air shows collectively saw a 10% to 15% increase in spectator attendance compared with 2007. Across the board, air shows are reporting strong attendance, with many – if not most – seeing all-time record attendance.

“Every week, we hear from more shows that have been challenged to deal with overflowing crowds and also from performers who have never seen such large crowds at specific venues,” said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows. “I’ve worked at ICAS for 12 years and this is a phenomenon I’ve never seen. At this point, we’re thinking we’ll have an overall 20% increase over last year. When you look at all the empty seats at baseball games or at NASCAR races, it’s quite a contrast.”

Jim Breen, president of the California-based Umbrella Entertainment Group, which works with 20 air shows each year, says he has never seen such consistent attendance increases across the board. “There are some outlier shows where the attendance is really off the charts,” he said, “but when you pull those out, it still looks like everything else is up about 13% on average.”

Breen singled out shows at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, NAS New Orleans, and Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., as examples of shows that have hosted record or near-record crowds during the last several weeks.

“We had the largest show we’ve had since I’ve been involved, which is since 1999,” said Rebecca March, manager of the NAS Patuxent River Air Show, held May 23-24 in Maryland. “We had more than a 10% increase over 2008. We expected a good turnout, but this many people was a very pleasant surprise.”

“With total attendance in excess of 70,000, this was our largest show in the 18-year history of the event,” said Colonel Larry Gallogly with the Rhode Island National Guard Air Show in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, on June 27 and 28. “We used every parking spot available to us and put more spectators on the ramp than we ever have before.”

“It was the largest attendance in our 29-year history,” echoed Fred Buckingham, chairman of the Florida International Show, held March 21-22 in Punta Gorda. Buckingham estimated 2009 attendance at 65,000, a substantial increase of more than 18% over the previous record of 55,000.

“We were expecting lower attendance than last year because of a bad weather forecast for Saturday and Sunday,” said George Gorman, manager of the New York Air Show at Jones Beach, held May 23-24. “Instead, we had a total of 407,000 spectators, and that even was with fog that delayed the Sunday show for 2-1/2 hours and a major traffic snarl on the east part of Long Island. We were barely off our all-time record, which is amazing considering everything that was working against us.”

Air show organizers cite the relative value of an air show compared with the cost of other entertainment options, such as a trip to an amusement park or a professional sporting event.

“What’s great about an air show,” said the ICAS’ Cudahy, “is that a family of four would be hard-pressed to spend anything more than $50 or $60, whereas they’re easily dropping three or four times that amount at an amusement park or a professional baseball game. And they’re getting a product that the kids will remember forever. It only makes sense that air shows would see an attendance surge in a bad economy, but this defies even our most optimistic projections.”

Between early April and mid-November, as many as 17.5 million spectators will attend more than 400 air shows from San Diego to New York City and from British Columbia to Miami.

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