When I wrote about my concerns about how Sun ’n Fun would be run and I was just going to stay away, I was wrong. As you know, I went anyway.
And I had an amazing time. I talked with so many friends, both old and new ones, I hugged a few friends for the first time in years—I am fully vaccinated and so were they. I walked around with other people, went window shopping in the scary exhibit halls, and just generally did an air show in almost the same way I used to. It felt very much like things were almost back to normal, even though they really aren’t. Not yet.
As I’ve written, there were major issues with the way Sun ’n Fun ran the show. The exhibition halls were a mess, with tightly packed crowds and no real monitoring, never mind enforcement of wearing masks. The order of the day was, do whatever you want. Which is fine for folks who have been vaccinated, but really risky for those who haven’t been.
Though my next rant affects relatively few people directly, it greatly impacted the work that I do at the show, along with that of dozens of my colleagues at other media outlets. The whole thing was a disaster. Writers and bloggers, photojournalists and videographers, all were treated as an inconvenient afterthought. Sun ’n Fun failed to get us WiFi in the media center, as they always have in the past. They also closed the media center at 1 p.m. every day, as though we go home in the early afternoon. And if there were press conferences taking place, we learned about them only if we got lucky–Sun ‘n Fun never provided a schedule. They did offer golf cart rides, and the drivers were great. But the volunteers staffing the media center were for the most part downright rude, and there was no food. I get that Sun ‘n Fun is saving money after last year’s cancellation. But even if they had just provided WiFi, a few friendly faces and a kind word here or there, that would have been enough. As it was, the message was… well, I’ll let you fill in the blank.
And the situation in the exhibition halls was similarly contemptuous of their customers. More than one exhibitor reached out to me to let me know that they felt blindsided by the lack of mask enforcement, believing, as I do, that the booths would be spread about and that crowds would be limited.
And I know that Sun ’n Fun was in a bind. The show had to go on, and once it did, how that happened was in almost every way beyond the show organizers’ control. That’s because, despite fears that the United States is on the verge of Wave Four of the scourge of COVID-19, that wave has not yet materialized. It might still, but it hasn’t. At the time they decided to do the show, Sun ’n Fun had no way of knowing what stage of the pandemic we would be in when opening day, April 13th 2021, rolled around. None of us did. At the same time, they made the call, and so far as these things are concerned, they needed a bit of luck for the arc of the virus to be in a good enough place for the show to be something other than an irresponsible move, and they got that break. We all did.
But it’s hard to understand the thinking behind the decisions made to essentially abandon nearly every health security safeguard they promised to provide. They lifted the cap on attendance even before the show began, they failed to enforce the mask requirement in the exhibit halls, as far we could tell, the spacing and placement of the exhibits were identical to any non-Covid year, and if there were additional sanitation measures being taken, they weren’t dramatic enough for me to have even spotted them. Perhaps they were servicing the portable restrooms more often.
Still, the show has been a big success. That’s because in spite of the lack of preparation and follow through, pilots really needed this. We needed to get back out there among other pilots, see and hear airplanes flying above us, check out gear and gadgets and, most importantly of all, see our friends, and maybe, if we were all vaccinated, get a hug or two. Flying is a family, and we need each other now more than ever. The success of the show was all about that fact and that we finally had a place where it made some degree of sense to get back together, however imperfect the execution might have been.
And you can bet that Oshkosh was watching all of this closely and will be heading back to Wisconsin with plenty of notes. I can’t wait for that show, which is the highlight of my aviation year by far. Nothing else comes close. And mark my words: Oshkosh AirVenture this year will be the best one ever, and not only because we’ll be there to see each other and watch the airplanes do their thing at an event that’s run by pros.