Air Shows Draw Crowds; Revenue

June 23, 2009
Air show attendance is on the rise despite a struggling economic environment

BRANSON, MO — With ticket prices at a fraction of the cost of those at alternative entertainment venues, air show spectators rely on the high energy, high value entertainment that an air show provides. Military demonstration teams, aerobatic performers, and vintage aircraft on static display are luring families to airports around the nation in record numbers. Branson Airport’s grand opening celebration featured one of the nation’s largest and most complex air show events, says Bobbi Thompson, Branson Air Show director. Attendance reached some 50,000 spectators before the weekend’s celebration was concluded May 10.

The Branson Airport grand opening celebration May 8-10 featured Branson’s first air show, a complicated affair to organize, says Bobbi Thompson, executive vice president of Airport Business Solutions (ABS) and event director of the Branson Air Show. As an international airport consulting firm, ABS offers analysis and program development to airports, including air show development and management analysis.

“The Branson air show was probably one of the most challenging shows I have ever planned and coordinated, because the entire time we were planning it, they were building the airport from scratch,” says Thompson.

“Anytime you are building a facility of this magnitude, which is planned to open the day after the air show, things change during that construction period, and we had to continually adapt the air show to fit those changes.”

A world record holding pilot and former airport director, Thompson began her 30 plus years of air show experience as an air show performer. She has also been published extensively on the topics of airport privatization, contract management, and minimum standards.

More than 200 volunteers took part in the grand opening celebration of the airport and air show. The non-profit Branson Airshow Inc. is one of five subsidiaries with the Branson Airport LLC parent company that own and operate the airport. The airport’s unique business model, a profit-driven company which receives no federal grant money, allows profits from the air show to go back to the community to promote tourism in new air markets.

Thompson explains that ABS began setting up the air show some ten months prior to the airport grand opening; a very short time to set up and plan a show of Branson’s size and scope, she says.

“The Branson Air Show is one of probably two of the largest shows in this country this year,” says Thompson.

“With the number of acts we have; the jet teams, the Golden Knights, all of the aircraft on static display; this is a very complex show.”

Branson’s air show featured many of the most popular show attractions: the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird team, the U.S. Army Golden Knight parachute team, national aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff, and Rich’s Incredible Pyro team, among others. With more than 20 acts and 25 aircraft on display, the air show proved a success with some 50,000 in attendance throughout the weekend.

Air show spectator attendance has been on the rise in 2009 as shows from around the country continue to report record attendance. John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, states in a press release that this season’s earliest handful of shows in Alabama, Arizona, California, and Mississippi have all reported record attendance. According to Cudahy, families are cutting costs but still looking for quality entertainment; air show ticket prices are low, yet the entertainment value is high, he says.

“Attendance for air shows this year is up about 18-20 percent,” says ABS’s Thompson. “I think people are looking for family entertainment where they don’t have to travel too far.

“Air shows are relatively inexpensive to attend; they are all day outings and something different that many people haven’t experienced before. In part also, we are seeing a high attendance rate because some shows have been cancelled, so there are fewer shows. The enthusiasts who make it a point to attend shows, and travel to them, make sure they make it to the ones that are still out there.”

With great attendance and effective planning, air shows not only benefit the spectators but the airport as well, explains Thompson. “If an air show is planned correctly, it can be a revenue generator for an airport. First and foremost, an air show can help build a relationship with the airport’s surrounding communities as a public/ community relations event.

“After that, if the show is planned correctly, and the budget is set early, planned accordingly, and executed efficiently, the show can be an effective airport revenue generator.”

Regarding the logistics in planning air shows at airports which are already operating and providing commercial service, Thompson relates, “It’s very easy to make that work.”

“We don’t have to shut down the service or airport operations to have an air show. A great example of that is the Dayton Air Show, one that I have been involved with for many years.

“The Dayton International Airport has had commercial air service ever since that show started. Same with the show we set up in Guatemala, a single runway commercial service airport. We are very familiar with that type of air show coordination; it’s all about the planning.”

There are exceptions: The Front Range Airport 25th anniversary Air Show was cancelled earlier this year due to the negative impact on commercial traffic to and from adjacent Denver International Airport (DIA), according to a Front Range press release. It was determined that resulting flight delays and cancellations caused by the air show would have cost DIA’s airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars and adversely impacted a large number of passengers, says the airport.

“I heard about the cancellation, and some of us were actually involved in that,” says Thompson. “The issue there was that they had a jet team; when you have a jet team, the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels, you need to protect the airspace — five nautical miles and 15,000 feet above the ground. So that takes some significant air space planning, and evidently the airport there was not comfortable with that.”