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Michigan's National Cherry Festival Airshow faces uncertain future

Unrealistic stipulations about airshow operations left a contract unsigned. Now the future of the airshow is in jeopardy.

Photo courtesy of the National Cherry Festival.

For nearly 100 years, the Traverse City community has celebrated the agricultural industry and the beauty of Michigan during the summer National Cherry Festival. A large part of the event is the annual airshow, which has drawn thousands of residents and visitors for performances from aerobatic legends and high-profile teams like the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels over its 35-year history.

Despite its popularity and stellar safety record, the airshow is facing an uncertain future. Contract negotiations between festival organizers and the Northwest Regional Airport Authority (NRAA) are currently at an impasse after festival organizers refused to sign an agreement by the March 7 deadline (which would have threatened the future of the airshow for 2026 and beyond) because of conditions in the agreement that would prevent them from effectively running the event.

In a March 7 letter to the NRAA, CEO of The Festival Foundation Kat Paye expressed frustration with the contract and an explanation for why the festival would not sign the agreement as proposed. “While a casual onlooker may see some of the changes that you’ve made as reasonable attempts to compromise, a more detailed review of FAA law, and a common knowledge of how airshows run, will show that [it] creates impracticalities (if not impossibilities) in the contract itself dooming us to fail from the start,” Paye wrote.

Festival organizers claim the proposed agreement was one-sided and not compatible with previous arrangements between the airshow and the airport—with one of the most contentious parts related to NRAA’s concern that the airshow will supposedly disrupt airline operations at Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport.

In order to safely put on an elite airshow, careful coordination happens between the FAA, authorized air bosses and airshow directors, as well as airports. During the National Cherry Festival, some commercial traffic will be moved—not canceled—to deconflict with the airshow performance. Airshow organizers have made concessions to restrict takeoffs and landings at the airport for only one hour each day for three days; however, the NRAA hopes to see further restrictions and schedule changes for high-performance aircraft—citing safety as its main concern.

The unsigned contract also stipulated the Cherry Festival must pay an $86,000 fee if no arresting gear is to be installed at the airport or a $106,000 fee if the gear is to be installed. Festival organizers say the airport does not have the authority to charge such an egregious fee for rightful use of the national airspace system and that the stipulation is designed to profit off the event.

“Airshows wow the public and bring great economic benefit to communities all over the country—especially when the airshow is lucky enough to get a big military demonstration team like the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds,” said AOPA Vice President of Airports and State Advocacy Mike Ginter. “It concerns us that the airport authority is trying to choke such a positive and economically beneficial event for the Traverse City community, which has enjoyed the National Cherry Festival for almost 100 years and a world class airshow for about 35 years. AOPA will be monitoring this situation carefully.”

NRAA CEO Kevin Klein is an outspoken champion of the proposed contract. He’s concerned about how the airshow will impact airport operations, as Cherry Capital Airport has seen significant increases in commercial traffic over the last decade and is now the third-busiest airport in Michigan. Klein also hopes to highlight the economic impacts of these decisions.

"We have to remember the annual economic impact of the airport is $1.1 billion," Klein said to UpNorthLive. "When we have an air show, you're jeopardizing airline service. You're jeopardizing services like air ambulances and others into the airport, and all that needs to be taken into account. Cherry Festival is not doing that."

The International Council of Air Shows weighed in on the ongoing dispute in a March 12 letter from President John Cudahy, noting that the stipulations in the unsigned contract would “handcuff” festival organizers. The letter continued, “There is not a single air show in all of North America that is planned and executed under the kind of policies proposed by the Northwest Regional Airport Authority.”

This echoes the concerns of the festival organizers, who claim language in the current contract would give the CEO of the airport unilateral control over the event and that impossible stipulations in the contract would effectively end the airshow.

Despite the stalemate, NRAA and National Cherry Festival organizers have both expressed intentions to continue negotiations to meet an amicable agreement.

The 2024 National Cherry Festival will be held from June 29 through July 6, with the airshow scheduled for June 29 and June 30.

Lillian Geil
Communications Specialist
Communications Specialist Lillian Geil is a student pilot and a graduate of Columbia University who joined AOPA in 2021.
Topics: Advocacy, Airport Advocacy, Airshow

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