Erosion Control: Airport Open House Day
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.