Early August, 2033
The 81st EAA AirVenture fly-in and airshow ended this past week with continued declines in General Aviation participation from peaks in the 1990s and early 2000s. Attendance this year was not expected to break 200,000 and this year’s flight activity of little more than 2000 aircraft during the week was once again to not high enough to qualify the tower as “The World’s Busiest.” Reflecting the continued reality of declining interest in aviation and airshows, EAA once again kept the once-popular North 40 parking area at the airport closed, consolidating all aircraft parking near show center. In spite of separate efforts by EAA, AOPA, and several other aviation organizations, there seemed to be no coherent solution on the part of any of organizations’ leadership as to how to stop the declining interest in airshows and aviation.
Mention Oshkosh to your non-aviation inclined friends, and you’ll likely get a “B’GOSH!” out of them. Mention Oshkosh to your aviation friends, and you’ll get a starry-eyed look of airplanes, airshows, and the celebration of all things avgeek.
For the first time in 11 years, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to return to the premier general aviation celebration a few weeks ago. A mix of work and pleasure, I spent ten days amongst friends, former classmates, coworkers, students, and random strangers brought together by a common love of flying. My AirVenture experience included airshows, meetings, networking, a fantastic College Mixer organized by EAA, and time spent “working the lines,” reaching out to prospective students, alumni, and the general public in the booth organized for my employer. It was a wonderful and tiring experience and very different to see from a professional lens.
One of the areas of focus in my academic research is in analyzing demographic data for pilots. I spend many hours pouring over FAA spreadsheets, industry analyses, and forecasts. As my time at AirVenture reminded me, there’s a lot of basic demographic analysis that can be done by traveling to Oshkosh and seeing who is in attendance. Who are the typical attendees? In nonscientific terms, it boils down to three words: Old White Guys.
EAA’s 2014 Exhibitor application noted the following specific demographic attendance data as a sales pitch for exhibitors:
2/3 of attendees over the age of 35
50% of attendees have a household income over $100,000/yr (US average: 20% of households meet this number)
What, in this portrait of current AirVenture attendees, strikes today’s millennial (of which I’m included) as an event they’d want to spend their time attending? As members of aviation organizations such as EAA and AOPA, what are we doing to ensure the future of our orgs? Why aren’t we directing the leaders of these organizations to make meaningful actions at bringing more people into the fray? Why are we allowing the huge disconnect between potential aviation fans of all varieties and organizations that aren’t doing anything meaningful or coherent to bring them into the field?
The narration of a demonstration flight during an afternoon airshow at this year’s AirVenture really brought home this disconnect. The person explaining the airplane being demonstrated said that the goal behind their product was to “open up the world of aviation” to more individuals. The cost of this opening product? $250,000+. How many millenials have a fraction of that to spend on flying? How many middle-aged people in the US have that kind of money? Does this product really do anything to open the market up to new blood? Probably not.
This is a theme and question I will return back to many times over the course of my blog posts for AOPA: What is the future of aviation?
What will AirVenture be in 20 years after the majority of today’s attendees are unable to travel to Oshkosh? Are the days of 500,000+ attendees and 10,000+ airplanes numbered? Will the above fictionalization of 2033 become true?
Most importantly, who is going to drive all those awesome VW Beetles around?