The annual Sun ’n Fun Fly-In is a wrap for 2021. The event, which was cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020, went forward this year, though not without complications. When it announced it would go ahead with the event a few months ago, the Aerospace Center For Excellence, which is the organization that Sun ‘’n Fun is a part of, said that it would have extensive COVID protocols in place because the health and safety of its customers was its top priority. And in the weeks leading up to the event, Sun ’n Fun also announced that the show was looking to be one for the record books, with unprecedented attendance. So how did it shake out in reality? Here are our top 7 takeaways from a show to remember that is also a show we’ll do our best to forget.
- Automated Exhibits Are Cool and Don’t Seem To Work. Exhibitions by Textron Aviation and ForeFlight and Jeppesen, among others, were well conceived and executed, and no one seemed to care, though we celebrate them being there at all. The exhibition spaces—Textron’s was in its big traditional outdoor space where it typically stages several airplanes—had almost no foot traffic. We understand why the companies did it—out of a sense of responsibility toward its employees and customers—but this wasn’t a solution so much as a placeholder. People are what these events are all about.
- Sun ’n Fun does good. Though its parent organization, the Aerospace Center For Excellence, Sun ’n Fun does some absolutely fantastic things in terms of education and representation. Just a few were its aviation academy’s building of a kit Cub that its flying club members will use as a club plane. It also raised a ton of dough at the event for a giant globe showing worldwide weather, for use in its education programs. Hats off to the organization for all of that.
- There wasn’t much news, and if there was, not many heard about it. Sun ’n Fun set new lows for its communications with the press and for its failure to provide for the media’s basic needs—we’re talking WiFi, or rather, the complete lack of it. If that is about punishing the press, then we got the message loud and clear. But it winds up punishing its exhibitors, whose press releases don’t get circulated or covered, and its show attendees, who don’t get heads-ups about cool stuff to see and do.
- Where were all the people? Before and during the show, Sun ’n Fun leadership kept on talking about how attendance would set all-time records. In terms of tickets sold, it might have. We had no idea, and will have to take Sun ’n Fun’s word for it. But in terms of the number of people on site? It was actually the lowest attendance I’ve ever seen, and this was my 27th consecutive show. So if people bought tickets, they didn’t show up to use them. The busiest day was reportedly Saturday, which did have a fair number of folks on the grounds. Sunday, always a slow day, was the slowest Sunday some of us have ever seen.
- The right people were at this show. Even if attendance was down, the right people were at the show. That is, the ratio of pilots to non-pilots was off the charts. That was manifested by fantastic business in the exhibition halls, where we saw lots of merchandise, including some high-end stuff, changing hands at a rapid pace. Is there a lesson here?
- COVID protocols were a joke. I just went over the list of protocols that Sun ’n Fun published on its website before the show, and it failed to follow through on nearly every one of them. From limiting daily attendance, which it didn’t do, to enforcing masks in the halls, which it didn’t do, to promising heightened sanitation processes on site, which if they did, we didn’t see, the organization made paltry, if any, attempts to follow through on putting on a safer show. And they haven’t apologized for any of it, either.
- There were a lot of vaccinated people there. We obviously didn’t conduct any surveys of who was vaccinated and who wasn’t, but based on the information we got though informal means, a lot of people were fully vaccinated. If that wound up not being the case, and we’ll never know, then the unvaccinated folks going about the air show as though nothing had changed from years past were putting their health and that of others at great risk. We’ll never know, but we hope beyond hope that people were doing the right thing.
- We needed this. One thing that was crystal clear was that aviation needs to be done with this terrible chapter in our history. We need to get out and do aviation things and hang out with other aviation people. Despite its numerous challenges, Sun ’n Fun provided that outlet. And speaking for ourselves, it was wonderful.