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AirVenture: Ominous Clouds Ahead

Like many thousands of other aviation geeks around the world, a small Wisconsin town holds a special place in my heart. Once a year my friends, former & current colleagues, former classmates, former professors, and favorite airplanes gather in Oshkosh to celebrate all things aviation. Hosted under the wing of the Experimental Aircraft Association, the annual celebration of all things airplane was this year another great time to meet up with fellow aviation fans.

For my inaugural Opinion Leaders post last year, I wrote about the demographic challenges faced by AirVenture in the future. These challenges haven’t gotten any easier in the past year. As a matter of fact, they’ve only gotten worse. While attendance was up, aviation enthusiasts were greeted with this sight in several of the display hangars:

If AirVenture is supposed to be the pinnacle event for aviation enthusiasts around the world, empty booths and non-aviation related vendors are a foreboding indication of where the future lies for our passion. This past year, the Experimental Aviation Association significantly raised prices for booth space, which priced out several aviation nonprofits from having space this year. In addition, the number of booths that one attendee I spoke with described perfectly as “carnie-type” significantly increased: those selling personal massagers, saunas, a number of pain relief/skincare creams, and most confusing, a booth selling pots and pans in the FlyMarket area of the show.

While the increase in the number of booths dedicated to pain relief and other associated problems of aging might be a better indication of the changing demographics of AirVenture, the sheer number and placement of these non-aviation booths was surprising and disconcerting. AirVenture is an understandably expensive proposition for EAA, but allowing prime real estate to go to non-aviation vendors defeats the purpose of having an event from an organization that touts itself as being the “Spirit of Aviation.”

There were apparently more attendees at Oshkosh this year than in past years, but I found it very easy to get around the display areas of the show during the second half of the week, quite unlike the  crowded throngs of years past. Something about the equation of AirVenture is off…and aviation suffers for it. That said, some basic changes could do well to reinvigorate the show and open it up to a broader audience, particularly those that will carry the show well into the future. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Devote an area of a display hangar to local/regional/national aviation nonprofits (with an emphasis on the future generation of aviation enthusaists  at a discounted display rate. If we are truly interested in fostering the future of aviation at a grassroots level, these organizations are the ones that work in tandem with Young Eagles to foster interest in our communities. A display area dedicated to these organizations could work well at promoting to attendees and sharing of best practices among other groups. This area should be either subsidized or discounted, as the current display booth rates have priced the vast majority of these organizations out of the market.
  • Better promotion of opportunities at AirVenture for middle school, high school and university students. The College Park/Education & Interactive Zone is a fantastic idea, but does not receive nearly the attention or promotion it should. While universities do their best to promote their presence at the space, EAA needs to be the one driving families looking at employment/college/other opportunities. KidVenture is prominent in materials, announcements and other promotions. Trams stopping at the College Park area rarely announced the area’s goals, mentioning the forum buildings and nothing else.
  • Innovative approaches to “weaker” days at the show and other special events. EAA said that attendance was up 20% on the Saturday and Sunday of AirVenture. Sunday’s attendance was likely reduced throughout the day by a series of thunderstorms that put a damper (literally) on activities. The last day of AirVenture continues to be a “lost” day for attendees, booth staff, volunteers and the like. The Thunderbirds were a likely draw, but they won’t be coming back to AirVenture every final Sunday. Why not get creative with a final day special? Alternatively, it might just be better to scale back the show entirely on Sunday and leave time for vendors to pack up and leave in the morning. This year’s AirVenture included a career fair and College Mixer. Neither were well promoted to attendees and the public. Instead, offer free or 1/2 price admission on the day of to those attending these events. What better way to get the younger generations and their families involved?

While AirVenture continues to be the pinnacle celebration of aviation, EAA and other partner organizations need to be aware that these warning signs for the future of Oshkosh have drastic implications for where we will be in the next 10-20 years.

21 Comments

  1. I agree 100%. There must have been 8 booths selling massages or massage devices/chairs. I never stopped at any of them once. Is the EAA saying they’d rather have empty booths than booths at a lower price? There was even a booth hawking hand-held lasers – at an aviation event! When I asked the vendor if he was informing his customers (mostly young people) that pointing a laser at an aircraft was a felony, he gave me a hard time – as if I was trying to take his guns away. I was frankly appalled.

  2. This year along with my teenage son I brought four of his friends. The #1 concern of the four of his friends was the cost of daily admission over four days. Teenagers and college kids should be allowed in at a very reduced rate.

    • Richard Thwaites

      September 5, 2014 at 2:39 am

      What? You mean decrease the Poberezny and company stipend? They already took a hit when they moved the price of lemonade from $8.50 per 8 oz serving to $5.25. Greed knows no sufficiency.

  3. I used to work as a factory rep at boat shows. The one thing I found that tends to drive down attendance at shows is show management itself. As a show gains in popularity, they raise the prices for exhibit space on exhibitors and raise admission prices for guests. A bit of this can be tolerated, but as it continues, show management tends to become more demanding on exhibitors and in some cases, openly hostile, thinking the exhibitors can’t afford to not come and show off their products. However, in today’s market, manufacturers have a lot of options for reaching buyers, and large public shows aren’t always cost effective compared to other options.

    Management needs to carefully review their policies towards both guests and exhibitors. Reduce prices for spaces and tickets based on the current economy if needed, or they can quickly end up being just a historical footnote of “Yeah, that USED to be a great show, but they got greedy and no one went.”

    • Richard Thwaites

      September 5, 2014 at 2:54 am

      I quit EAA years ago when it occurred to me that the succession of Poberezny’s seemed fishy. That organization has no financial accountability to its membership. Somebody should pull its non-profit certification. By the way, what happens to all that money that they raise in their $1000/plate Gathering of Eagles Dinner? Fishy.

  4. This article and many others similar to it remind of scenes from films like ‘Dances With Wolves’ or ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ where Indian elders are lamenting the coming of the white man and pontificating on what can be done to route the inevitable. I do not disagree with the author’s solutions and all may be great ideas. A core issue of the matter is what the author observes regarding the increasingly geriatric demographic and, of course, cost is at the nucleus of the core. It’s difficult to imagine that merely reducing the expense of exposure at this event or others like it will do much more than bolster attendance, however. The overarching problem of the significant and sobering costs relating to aviation remains. Anyone enthusiastic enough to pursue aviation for fun or a career will probably not balk at the price of admission and will likely have a good idea of what to expect. The recruit who would never have given any thought to getting into aviation but for cheap tickets would seem to be an exception. Times have changed and people and their perceptions with it. Most kids have already been “herded” onto and off of a “bus” that happens to fly many times and the electronic distraction in hand is far more interesting and entertaining than watching the distant terrain roll past a window. There’s simply no novelty left in it. Though repetitive and pessimistic, I see the same clouds gathering.

  5. Ominous Clouds?? All of the problems that GA faces can be attributed to GREED!! From the FBO’s who charge incredibly sky high prices for fuel and services, to the FAA, to the prices that the EAA charges for admission. The aviation industry, like no other, has multiple masses of entities waiting to gouge you for anything that they can. This cannot possibly help interested young people take the steps to learn to fly. They simply cannot afford it.

    As the pilots get older, and drop out of flying, there will not be enough new pilots taking their place. This will start an unstoppable downward spiral which will turn smaller airports into neighborhoods and shopping centers. Even some of the mid sized airports will loose noise and overflight battles with the surrounding neighborhoods simply because the lack of support by pilots

  6. Richard Thwaites

    September 5, 2014 at 2:40 am

    Face it. Light Aircraft Flying is a n artifact of the late 20th century. It is no longer an activity to which most young people aspire. They get high on adrenaline through their XBox games. Most don’t have the funds to pay $150 per hour for a 40 year old Cessna 152. What used to be the $100 hamburger is now a $300 hamburger. In the mean time, entry level salaries have been stagnant.

    Light aircraft flying, for the most part, is a pastime for well-off elderly white men who are on average 59 years old, a demographic that is aging at almost one year per year. Youngsters don’t have the patience that they once had; they look for instantaneous gratification. Flying doesn’t afford such a benefit. People need to take their time, be meticulous with planning in advance and mitigate risk.

    By 2024, 10-years hence, only trust fund babies and the 1% will be able to afford wings – and most of those will aspire to jets, not 75-year old piston technology with vacuum driven steam gauges. New pilots will be on a career track, not a recreational activity.

    You can thank the regulators, the mass media and the greedy myopic industry and tort lawyers for the state of GA. The last nail in the coffin is when the greedy developers accelerate their purchases of decaying airport properties on which to build condos, big box stores and strip malls.

    It was nice while it lasted. Anybody interested in a 1968 Bonanza with 6813 hours of reliable flight time? Oh, it will come complete with a panel full of King radios and will need an engine rebuild soon.

    • Flying private aircraft is no longer within reach of the middle class. This is Just another sign of the growing gap between the haves and the have nots. The wealthy continue to get richer. Greed has no limits.

      • Oh, spare me. The problem is government. Specifically, a particular political party that CONSISTENTLY refuses to allow further oil drilling, opposes pipelines, tries to ban leaded gas, insists on government regulation and control of every single last facet of non-experimental GA and which also destroys prosperity with their agenda of envy and theft. Leftists have caused our jobs to be shipped overseas, their environmentalism has destroyed our manufacturing base and their rules, regulations and taxes cost the economy a minimum of $2 trillion a year. That, coupled with another $4 trillion a year in spending, accounts for the middle class not having any money anymore. Until and unless Progressivism is ripped out of our government root and branch, there will be no recovery for GA.

        • Richard Thwaites

          September 5, 2014 at 2:36 pm

          Wow. That reply was entertaining. It was scribed by a bona fied historical revisionist.

          Check your facts, chump. Most of the job shifting offshore has been driven by the corporate sector and their political operatives chiefly during the Bush Administration. Oil drilling isn’t the problem. More US oil won’t impact the market price. It’s a world market and China is buying all it can find. The problem is a technology problem. We are flying around on 1930’s piston technology. New technology like turbodiesels have been priced through the roof and regulatory compliance demands maintenance schedules that are unsustainable except for very wealthy owners or flight schools.

          The adverse effect of government on GA is cumbersome government regulation which has been applied by both parties. Recall, that the Bush Administration was as ardent a supporter of ATC User Fees as the current dysfunctional administration.

          As for deficit spending, point your finger to the GOP starting in 2002 when the Cheney and the neocons, with his proxy, puppet George Junior, ventured into two war theaters with no exit strategy. We have spent billions of money borrowed from China to fight on behalf of others. Why? And now they are pushing to move us into two more conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine? That’s where your deficit spending is coming from.

          If the youth are buried in their video games, you are obviously buried in FOX News – a foreign owned propaganda outlet. For the sake of public safety, I hope you don’t fly.

          • Picture a cartoon where an elephant and donkey are standing outside a bank that has just been robbed. They’re holding bags of loot labeled wealth and freedom and each is pointing at the other saying “he did it!” Meanwhile millions of keystone cops run around holding their heads and yelling at each other because the “he did it” blame game is to much for them to overcome. Wake up America, blame is getting us no where.

          • Amen

          • You’re right, yet the sheeple keep electing power hungry politicians. And spending on elections is ridiculous! Whenever term limits are mentioned, people go nuts about driving “our brightest and best” away if we do that. If the President can only serve two terms, that should be good enough for Congress! Most people are content to let it keep going, while the middle class is destroyed due to lack of jobs. Yet, GA is expected to thrive, with six and seven dollar gas, $800 for a GPS, thousands for an engine overhaul. The industry is greedy too. It’s no wonder young people aren’t interested.

          • Well, maybe you should look out your window and check the price of gas if you think US oil won’t affect its price. OPEC and Russia are going nuts genius. Bush II was a bad president, and I think NAFTA is a con game. But, no one has done more to drag America to its knees than the Liar in Chief. And he has two more years to “use his pen and his phone”, with the help of the liberal media, to dictate the destruction of the country and all it once stood for. Sounds like you’ve been a cheerleader for the Nigerian imposter.

          • Richard Thwaites

            January 17, 2015 at 4:07 pm

            This price dip is an aberration – a blip on the screen that has been driven by the Saudi’s who are propagating the pretense that they will not back down to American shale oil. The reality, if we could look deeper, is probably an agreement between the US and the Saudis to put Putin under such intense pressure economically that the Russians finally throw him out. The other factor in the price pause in oil is that the global economy has slowed significantly in spite of the bubble that the US has enjoyed, due largely to irresponsible fiscal policy. This will all come to an end, 100LL will eventually (in the next 5 years) return to $8/gallon and higher driven by oil demand in China and the rest of the world.

            As for your sophomoric allegation that Obama is a Nigerian imposter, I won’t give you credence. The pendulum has hit its two opposite limits – from 2001-2009 and again from 2009-2016 and neither limit is correct. What’s worse is that the Legislative branch and the Executive branch are at war. A continuation of this conflagration will result in the eventual end of our democracy because under such conditions, the government ceases to operate properly. In the mean time, our infrastructure crumbles. Term limits, campaign finance reform (the end of PACs) and a mandated balanced budget must be mandated by constitutional amendment. But I won’t hold my breath because majority of “The People” would rather spend time watching reruns of Dance with the Stars and Monday Night Football than to educate themselves.

        • Well said! There is no limit to the damage done, not just to GA, but to American society, by the progressive “we’ll take care of all your needs” philosophy and social programs that coddle every malcontent or person too lazy to take care if themsełves. They are also directly responsible for destruction of families and morality. Our country is in a spiral to its destruction thanks to greed for power by elected officials. Technology has also played a huge part in draining creativity and the work ethic from young people. I don’t see any of this bring reversed. We are collectively turned into sheep on the way to slaughter.

          • Richard Thwaites

            January 17, 2015 at 4:13 pm

            The foregoing commentary was brought to you by; Fox News, the propaganda arm of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp, a non US entity.

            Funny Bruce, you use the word sheep in a previous post. You want to see sheep, see the Fox News audience!

  7. Several of my friends, all of us approaching the dreaded Senior Citizen category, have been stumped by the FAA and their absurd demands for the Third Class Medical. As a result because of the rule of no denials in your history, they just quit flying. There are some nice airplanes sitting in hangars, not being flown and nobody wants to buy them. The doldrums of GA are caused by more than just one factor. But they all add up to what Richard says, and my own observations confirm his. Beyond the medical problems, the time and effort and money required to obtain even a PRIVATE ticket are more than what most young folks who didn’t come from an aviation family, are willing to navigate. There is no denying that the educational aspects of the effort can be daunting and some just can’t do it no matter how hard they try. That’s why the completion rate has always been around only 20%. I am one of those who voluntarily quite flying because of the financial aspects, the overwhelming rules about everything you can imagine, and the time required plus the anticipation of having to undergo the increasingly expensive medical exams. I really believe GA can’t ever be even close to what it used to be.

  8. We at EAA appreciate Mr. Rottler’s ideas. EAA AirVenture Oshkosh was extremely successful in 2014, and the aviation business community is an important part of the Oshkosh culture. It’s a unique marketplace for aviators to shop, compare and explore that can be found no place else. It’s also part of what makes Oshkosh the singular event that it is, bringing together all facets of our great aviation community for a single celebration of flight.

    Unfortunately, his opinion was not completely based on data. An example: His perception is that the non-aviation exhibitor segment is growing. Had Mr. Rottler asked, we would have gladly let him know that that percentage has not increased in 20 years. Interestingly, non-aviation vendors only return because they are successful. As the vast majority of the attendance of Oshkosh comes from aviators and their families, that means they must be the primary customers of those vendors during the week.

    Also, the exhibit pricing description was not accurate. There was a move this year to square-footage pricing as a more equitable standard for exhibitors. As a result, the rates for a number of exhibitors actually decreased in 2014. Some others increased, others remained the same.

    There were several good ideas mentioned here, some of which are already in place at Oshkosh. There was a discount for final-day admission in place in 2014. A number of non-profit aviation organizations already partner with EAA to give additional visibility to their missions during AirVenture week.

    The College Park concept just completed its second year and is growing. A key element for future growth is for participating universities to join us in promoting this opportunity to their students, alumni, prospective students and other young people interested in aviation. As a related note, the KidVenture area for the younger aviation enthusiasts just completed a record year at AirVenture, too, with more than 20,000 visitors throughout the week.

    We encourage all suggestions from fellow aviators. Paul Poberezny received dozens of ideas after the EAA fly-in each year from EAA members as well as non-members similar to Mr. Rottler. Paul often would compliment the person for the suggestion, then add, “That’s a good idea. I’d like you to be chairman of that area so it gets done. Get some volunteers to help you and let me know what you might need.”

    So, what do you say, Mr. Rottler — are you in?

    • GA is killing itself with regulation and greed. The dream of flying is dying. Those who make the rules, run the companies and supposedly lead the industry are letting it die. Oh, the wealthy will continue to have their toys and technology spinoff from the military will make new gadgets, but for the vast majority, its over. Most of us hated “old white men” will dwindle away and soon, there will be fewer small airplanes in the sky.

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