Show Attendance: Up, Down or No Change?
"Now that," said my friend Walter Atkinson, "is something you just don't see at an AOPA party." The "that" he was referring to was an attractive young woman dancing atop the wing of Herpa's DC-3 with a day-glo, internally lighted hula hoop with auto-sequenced flashers and synchronized color shift. Dan Gryder, the DC-3's owner and chief pilot, was accompanying on trombone. Now neither Walter nor I drink enough anymore to hallucinate, so I swear, this really happened and, well, that's what makes OSH the place to be during the last week in July.
The -3 was parked at the Orion ramp on the north side of Wittman where Dan had put together a nice party for AVweb advertisers and supporters and one that gave us an opportunity to auction off a left-seat ride for the benefit of Challenge Air, one of the worthiest of causes. It also gave me an opportunity to canvass the crowd to ask about the largish elephant in the room these daysóthe question of whether GA is about to tank. Is the entire industry on the precipice of a sharp decline due to fuel prices and softness in the general economy? Are we about to be regulated out of existence?
Maybe I am hallucinating, but if there are markedly fewer people at AirVenture, it's not obvious. The North 40 isn't chock-a-block with parked airplanes, but I've seen that before. I have noticed that the car lots are fuller than I ever remember seeing them and foot traffic is as dense as ever. More than once, AVweb's mobile news cartólook for us in the green shirts and flying the green bannerógot gridlocked in a sea of humanity. We'll see what EAA's gate receipts show, but for all I know, it's the difference between 100 people and 95. It's just not that noticeable.
Yesterday, I walked the vendor booths and asked how business was. Everyone I talked to said they we were prepared for sparse attendance but all were seeing more traffic than they expected to. And the river of aviation-oriented humanity is yielding a better class of customer--more buyers, fewer tire kickers. Wag-Aero told me that Wednesday's receipts were within $500 of last year's total, an amount easily lost in the noise level. That makes sense to me. There's nothing like $6 avgas to drive off the riff raff.
I heard quite a few comments to the effect that we should enjoy this while we still can because (a) the Democrats will get elected and regulate general aviation out of existence or (b) the Republicans will and high gas prices and poor business conditions will whither what's left of the industry. When I hear that, I need to remind the speaker to get a grip. While we need to be realistic about the industry's future, let's lose the doom and gloom, please.
As the mood at OSH shows, we are in the middle of a sea change in this country, the long-term effects of which can't be predicted this July or for probably many to come. And yes, GA may retract and it may not be as accessible for as many as it traditionally has been and yes, economics will force us to use our airplanes more wisely. But the industry is sustainable and it will find a way to become more so. I've been following the main stream press reports on consumer reaction to high gas prices and I am, frankly, encouraged. In fact, I'm bordering on bullishness.
Looking around OSH makes me more so. We've reported on some bold products and ideas here, the LSA segment continues to flower and there are more sophisticated and promising innovations than ever. You don't draw the better part of a million people to wander around a small airport in Wisconsin every summer on a lark. Despite high fuel prices and a recession, airplanes and the people who fly them seem to be eternal and thus, there will always be an Oshkosh.