Airshows expect record 2009 attendance

April 1, 2009

Thunderbirds at "Thunder in the Desert" airshow; U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Tracie Forte. The U.S. Air Force Thunderbird Aerial Demonstration Team’s F-16 Fighting Falcons fly past the Luke Air Force Base flag pole during the 2009 Thunder in the Desert Air Show and Open House, March 21.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Tracie Forte.

The airshow industry launched its 2009 season last month with strong attendance at the Florida International AirShow.

“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 airshow, held March 21 and 22 in Punta Gorda. He estimated 2009 attendance at 65,000 people, 18 percent higher than the event’s previous record of 55,000.

The Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., Open House and the Thunder in the Valley Air Show in Columbus, Ga.—other airshows held the same weekend—also reported record-breaking crowds. In Columbus, organizers sent free tickets home with school-age children, obligating their parents to pay for their own tickets to take advantage of the free children’s tickets. As a result, the show’s attendance topped 30,000 people. Crowds were so large at Luke Air Force Base that event organizers had to find new places to park cars.

Indicators point to a surge in airshow attendance this year as families search for low-cost, high-value, local entertainment.

“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 airshow 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 airshow 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 options, such as amusement parks and professional sporting events.

“An airshow ticket is closer in price to a movie ticket than to a theme park or baseball game,” Cudahy said. “Now, with gasoline prices down and recessionary concerns putting other leisure options on hold, airshows are an increasingly attractive option.”

“What’s great about airshows 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.”

When 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, attendance climbed to record levels.

ICAS said that between early April and mid-November, more than 10 million spectators will attend more than 400 airshows across North America.