Erosion Control: Airport Open House Day

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I read a quote from tennis star Andre Agassi the other day that resonated with me. “What makes something special is not just what you have to gain but what you feel you have to lose.”

That pretty well describes how I feel about our annual airport open house day, which we held in Venice last weekend. It drew about 1000 people which, as these things go, is impressive attendance. But as we were standing around directing traffic into the parking lot, the inevitable question arose: Why are we doing this? What is the payback? What would happen if we don’t do it? What’s in it for the people who attend?

Ostensibly, airport events like this are intended to promote the airport, highlight the benefits of general aviation and let the non-flying public know that we exist. Not necessarily on the list is promoting new pilot starts. As I have observed recently, I’ve passed the pollyannish phase of hoping efforts to sell people on aviation will turn them into pilots. There’s a thin membrane between optimism and self-delusion and it’s as porous as a sponge.

But somehow, airport promotion is different. When I interviewed AOPA’s Mark Baker last fall, he said something that’s stayed with me: All aviation activity starts and ends with airports—healthy airports—and without them, you’re nowhere. Whether healthy airports will attract new pilots or not is academic, but if you don’t have them, you can’t even consider the question. Unless an airport has an intensely flight-active commercial and GA community—and I’m not sure ours does—it probably benefits from as much pilot support and community outreach as can be practically managed. We’re all painfully aware that the trend that best describes general aviation is atrophy and if it’s left to its own, atrophy will inevitably evolve into sclerosis. I think the realization of this gets to us all and that only contributes to the decline.

Things here in Venice have turned around of late, thanks to an involved city council and mayor and an energetic, competent airport manager, Chris Rozansky. Over the weekend, my friend Nick Carlucci reminded me that just a few years ago, during a period he calls “the troubles,” a majority of the city council was anti-airport and would have happily closed the airport. Now, the place is getting continual runway and taxiway improvements, hangar upgrades and generally good maintenance.

If our airport open house has a role in this, part of it may be to show the city fathers that pilots and owners are involved in the airport and the community is interested in it. When it comes time for them to vote on airport-related issues, having seen the interest in airport day might just make a difference. In other words, we aren’t so much promoting the airport as we are practicing erosion control. If all it takes is eight or 10 volunteers giving a day of their time to pull this off, that’s a good investment, in my view. I’m happy to make it.

The next step for us, I suppose, is to kick it up a notch for the attendees of these events. As it is now, we have a static display with representative airplanes, but not much else. I noticed that a lot of people showed up, stayed for five minutes, then left. Maybe they were expecting more. And if they were, it’s on us to figure out what “more” is.

But then isn’t that the trick of surviving in a declining industry? It’s folly to think that we’re going to see a growth rebound in general aviation for the short term. And by that I mean significant increases in activity or pilot starts. But just because GA is shrinking, doesn’t mean it’s dying. It will exist in some form for the foreseeable future and at some point in the distance, it will grow again. If all we’re able to do now to assure that is to provide healthy, well-maintained airports, we will have done all right.

I’m open to suggestions on how to improve an airport open house day.

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Comments (7)

"I'm open to suggestions on how to improve an airport open house day."

And I'd be open to suggestions on what to include in A open house day. My home airport doesn't currently have one (or if it does, it's so poorly advertised that a regular airport tenant like myself doesn't know about it), and I've thought about trying to change that in the last couple years. Unfortunately, local airport politics may make it difficult to arrange an open house, but if I had information about what to expect from other similar open houses, it might help to get one arranged.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 11, 2014 9:28 AM    Report this comment

We've been doing air shows and other "open house" type events for a long time. The biggest enemy of these events is "security" - or what passes for it in post-9-11 America. Honestly - if somebody was going to vandalize an airplane or airport infrastructure, when do you suppose they'd attempt it: alone, under cover of darkness? Or in broad daylight, in the presence of several thousand of their closest friends? No fanny-packs; no fluids of any kind; no pocket knives or nail files. No umbrellas; no bicycles. The FBOs are locked up for the duration. Welcome to the airport. Have a good time.

Could anyone run a successful block party like this?

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 11, 2014 12:27 PM    Report this comment

There are two open houses or annual family day fly-ins that I like to drive/fly to. Both have an integrated classic car or motorcycle display respectively at them. I've noticed it seems the vehicles draw about an equal viewing as the static airplanes, but don't know any official stats.

Also, one has a Kid's Zone and a science/tech interactive display that always draws big crowds, young and old. The list for rides on helicopters is hours long at both venues, finished with selfies and many pics of entering and exiting. Not so much for a slow, single engine, though.

Never heard a complaint about security whether at a small venue as mentioned above or at the annual Luke Days with 250K souls and the Thunderbirds overhead. Certainly doesn't bother me any.

But looking at the yearlong presence of local airports, aside from fights with noise nimbys or politicians, I really think a cafe or restaurant, and I regularly visit the one at the Payson airport that always seems to have more local non-fliers in it than pilots, is a real fixture that helps promote and solidify the airports' presence every day more than anything else. I'm aware economics is the driver on having a viable one at an airport, but my family or friends always seem to gather around food either in the kitchen, outside on the patio or at a restaurant when something needs discussing, so what better way than at the local airport to keep its presence in the minds of people. Easier said than done, though, I know.

Posted by: David Miller | February 11, 2014 1:10 PM    Report this comment

One other idea just popped in the vast space of my mind. Along the lines of having a cafe/coffee shop/restaurant at the airport, maybe set up the socially all- important connection to the Universe - WiFi.

Having the local airport with food, GOOD coffee, flying activity, and a bitchin' WiFi connection, well, put in the requests for additional restrooms now!

Posted by: David Miller | February 11, 2014 1:49 PM    Report this comment

I think Dave Miller's airport of mention with a "menu" of events segregated for attendees from "adults", classic cars to the younger (kids) folks.. Here at Teterboro (TEB) NJ, they have an event, "Wheels & Wings" every summer, much along the lines as Dave's airport.

Several years ago I developed a similar air show theme for a "small-size" GA airport here in NJ titled; "Wheels, Wings & Swing" - the "swing" reflecting a Big Band featuring music of the swing era.

GA needs ALL the PR and sales promotion it can get - who knows, maybe 4-5 students and a business owner may be lurking in the crowd; a future prospect for a TBM or King Air?

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 11, 2014 1:53 PM    Report this comment

Good idea. A KTRM the best response was from an improvised "flea market" we put together where avionics and aircraft parts were traded or sold as there was of interest to local pilots and other from airports in the vicinity. Add aircraft exhibits by EAA members and open hangar displays. Invite the Boys and Girl Scouts and students from nearby schools. A couple of speakers on pertinent topics would help explain our role in the local economy. Invite TSA to have them explain their function in our "happy flying ground".

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 11, 2014 2:41 PM    Report this comment

We got it. We had the fly-ins because we enjoyed the airport, our fellow flyers and because we had someone who profoundly understood that one of the most important streets at our airport, 10/28 (KRMY) had to talk with main street. We did, we're better for it, the community is better for it and we're still here. We get it. Thank you, Marsha.

PS, We've had good working relationships where I am now, KTVC, because we involve the TSA folks from the outset. The locals are not the problem.

Posted by: William Ross | February 12, 2014 9:47 PM    Report this comment

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