As recession takes grip, air show industry takes off

March 30th, 2009

With each day delivering more news of economic despair, the air show industry begins its 2009 season this month under a sky of optimism, with all indicators pointing to an attendance surge as families search for low-cost, high-value, local entertainment.

Initial reports on spectator attendance at the season's earliest air shows suggest the optimism is well-founded. "The numbers are still coming in, but we think it was the largest attendance in our 29-year history," said 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 percent over the previous record of 55,000.

"Families are cutting costs, but they're still looking for quality entertainment," said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows. "That's why air show attendance spikes in a bad economy. Ticket prices are low, but the entertainment value is high." Cudahy reported a 12 to 15 percent increase in air show attendance during 2008, which followed patterns witnessed during 1980-1982 and 1990-1991 recessions.

Fueling the attendance increase are ticket prices that are a fraction of the cost of other entertainment venues, such as amusement parks and professional sporting events. "An air show ticket is closer in price to a movie ticket than to a theme park or baseball game," said Cudahy. "Now, with gasoline prices down and recessionary concerns putting other leisure options on hold, air shows are an increasingly attractive option."

Once spectators arrive at air shows, they find a level of entertainment that exceeds what they can get anywhere else, at any price: military demonstration teams such as the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, aerobatic performances by the world's most talented pilots, and a collection of museum-quality, vintage aircraft that can only be seen flying at air shows.

"What's great about air shows is they showcase all that is good about our country," said Bill Roach, who runs the Wings over Houston Airshow. "They're exciting, patriotic, and educational. The variety of jets, vintage airplanes, parachute acts, sailplanes, and ground acts ensures that there's something of interest for everyone."

The Houston show was held in late October. Organizers expected an attendance drop based both on the economy and the effects of Hurricane Ike, which had decimated Texas weeks earlier. Instead, the show saw attendance climb to record levels, a phenomenon reported across the nation, most noticeably in the fall, after news of the economic downturn became particularly grim.

Between early April and mid-November, more than 10 million spectators will attend more than 400 air shows from San Diego to New York City to British Columbia to Miami.

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