Going Direct: NBAA’s Big Bizjet Show Is A Go Despite Spike In COVID-19. Why This Is A Terrible Idea.

Putting on a huge international gathering of many thousands of people before there’s a vaccine or a treatment is not in anyone's best interest.

NBAA 2018
The NBAA’s most recent Orlando NBAA-BACE event was held in 2018.
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If you’ve been following the news lately, and there has been no lack of news, you’re aware that progress against COVID-19, the often-fatal disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has been halting, at best. After several states reopened for business, a term that means different things to different regulators, and after the Memorial Day three-day weekend, there has been a big spike in new cases. Experts say that while additional testing is likely the source of some of the uptick in cases, the overriding cause is the relaxing of distancing measures. Many states, in fact, had their highest number of cases ever last week, and several are already rolling back their re-openings or threatening to do so unless citizens do a better job of staying safe.

So I was surprised and, frankly, disappointed to discover that the National Business Aviation Association is planning to go ahead with its early October event (October 6-8) known as NBAA BACE (the latter acronym standing for Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition). There’s no way an event of its scope can be conducted safely given the present state of the pandemic and the likely arrival of a vaccine in 2021, if even by then. It’s not unlikely that a vaccine will be tested, fielded and widely distributed before October. It’s impossible for that to happen.

And having attended more than 20 NBAA events, I know how insanely busy and crowded they are. And if you’re never been to an NBAA gathering, “big” is a colossal understatement. Imagine 10 football fields of exhibitors selling everything from crew uniforms to intercontinental business jets. Every year there are many thousands of attendees, including hundreds of aviation journalists, like me.

But attendees aren’t even the most noteworthy thing about the event. It’s the exhibitors that make it special. Every year around a thousand of them set up on the floor of the convention center—for the past several years NBAA has hopped back and forth between Las Vegas and Orlando, with the 2020 show slated for the Central Florida location. In addition, there’s a static display of aircraft, at Orlando Executive when the show is in Orlando. Around 100 exhibitors have their aircraft there, many of them with a handful of planes on display. The crowds there are also standing room only.

And with visitors flying in for the festivities from six continents, the 2020 edition has “super spreader” written all over it. If you aren’t familiar with the term, a super- spreader event is one during which the virus is widely transmitted and then in turn transmitted to others upon the return home of those who attended. It’s the virological equivalent of a runway nuclear reaction.

So it’s no-brainer to cancel it, right?

Apparently, it isn’t. And I won’t speak to the reasons NBAA might have for not canceling it, because they can’t be sufficient.

But putting that aside for the moment, let’s ask how NBAA plans to host such a large international event while keeping its visitors, attendees, exhibitors and staff safe?

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The answer is, it has as its goal exactly that, to implement safe-distancing efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. But so, far the details are thin or absent. That’s not surprising, considering that no single plan could be enough. It’s more like 50 separate plans are needed, because NBAA hosts a plethora of event types, everything from large breakfast events, where hundreds of attendees sit eight or 10 to a table, to general sessions, which put thousands in a single hall.

In its statement on its website, NBAA gets the message across that it’s going forward with the show, saying, “NBAA continues to plan for the 2020 NBAA-BACE with an overriding focus on the health and safety of all participants,” and it stresses that it’s planning on hosting a “full slate” of exhibiting companies.

NBAA is also making it clear that it’s working with what it refers to as the “relevant local and state authorities in medicine and government,” in addition to site hosts, and has retained the services of CrowdRx, a “leading provider of physician-led event services” to guide NBAA in its planning for health safety at the event. Masks, by the way, will be required, though NBAA’s wording of this walks is very careful, so as not to, I’m guessing, alienate those members who are skeptical about the efficacy of masks or who are otherwise opposed to their use.

Will these safeguards be enough?

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I don’t see how. Without actively and dramatically limiting the number of people who attend, exhibit and work at the event, there’s no way that NBAA can institute physical distancing and put on an event that’s safe.

I won’t be attending for the simple reason that I don’t want to run what I perceive as a high risk of catching the virus and potentially passing it on to others, including members of my family. COVID-19, as you doubtless know, is particularly dangerous for people in their mid-60s and older, thousands of whom are at NBAA every year.

It pains me to say this, because NBAA is a great organization and its annual convention is one of the highlights of my year, but NBAA should reconsider and do the only thing that’s safe for the people who attend its annual bash in one capacity or another and call off the 2020 gathering.

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