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Going Direct: Reflections on a Very Strange Sun ’n Fun

Let’s be honest, there were nothing but elephants in that room.

Reflections on a Very Strange Sun ’n Fun
Photo by Jim Koepnick

Even before I got to this year’s Sun ’n Fun fly-in, held annually (if all goes well) in Lakeland, Florida, I had made up my mind to be positive. And I was! To be clear, there was a lot to be positive about. A quick refresher, first. The last two Sun ’n Fun’s were hugely problematic, 100% because of the pandemic. Two years back, the pandemic was emerging and there was a lot of denial about it, including from Sun ’n Fun, who was insisting on holding the event despite the obvious risk. They eventually relented and cancelled it Then, last year, the event took place during an active period of Covid transmission, and any pretense of following social distance or masking guidelines was abandoned early on Day One of the show.

This year was different, and hooray for that. There was nary a mask in sight (I didn’t wear one, though nothing but respect for those who did), and exhibitors and airshow flyers showed up and put on great performances. It all felt almost, dare I say it, normal.

But it wasn’t really. There were and continue to be huge issues with the event and its management, and make no mistake, these were all things not to be spoken of. They were all elephants in the room.

So here are the elephants. 

Amazon is taking over the airport, and it cares zero percent about Sun ’n Fun or the people who go there. It flies its jets out of LAL 24/7. The special flight rules that apply to every other person there during the week simply do not apply to Amazon. They fly when they want to, period. These dead-of-night departures are no fun for people who are camped under or near the departure path of the big cargo jets. Don’t get me wrong. Amazon’s giant Lakeland distribution center brings big bucks into Lakeland, but its presence has also given the modest regional airport a Class B vibe. And with big airport expansion plans in the offing, an expansion that will delight Amazon but erase big chunks of Sun ’n Fun’s show grounds, some are arguing that the airport isn’t a great spot for a big fly-in. While I wouldn’t go that far, Sun ’n Fun leadership should at least be discussing this issue out loud, sharing plans for how they are going to respond to these changes with plans instead of with silence.

Speaking of leadership, you might know, as we have previously reported, that John “Lites” Leenhouts, who has led the event for a decade now (how did that happen?), is retiring. Well, he is now officially retired now that Sun ‘n Fun 2022 is in the books. The new guy, Gene Conrad, has great reviews and long experience with running airports and organizations. Seems like a good call. And one might have thought that Lites would have had Conrad tagging along with him, so he could introduce the new guy to the audience. But that new guy was nowhere to be found, and Lites didn’t say a word about him in his remarks, which strikes me as so odd an omission I have to wonder what the backstory is. Again, this was not discussed.

But attendance was discussed. Last year, Lites told us, was a record year. If it was, that record year was characterized by nearly empty grounds for the first couple of days of the show and a claimed attendance figure that defied belief. This year, he told us, was even better, and I’m sure it was. I’m sure that pre-sale tickets sales were great. But let’s be honest here. Back in the early-to-mid 1990s, the show was jammed, so much so you couldn’t make your way across many parts of the show grounds without a little running-back action. There is ZERO chance that this year’s event was even close to the figures at those shows from 30 years ago. And that’s okay. Times have changed. Aviation has changed. We are great the way we are. So why proceed with the fiction? It’s silly and self-serving.

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Finally, let me end with a truly positive note. The Aviation Center for Excellence, which a few years back became the umbrella organization for Sun ’n Fun, is doing truly great work, and Lites wasted no time in reminding attendees that our week in the sun (well, mostly Sun) having aviation fun bankrolls year-round outreach to young people in Central Florida, providing them everything from enrichment to high school coursework to flight and mechanics training. That is great work, and we applaud ACE for it. Bravo.

When it comes to the new guy, here’s my plea. Embrace transparency. The folks at Oshkosh—and I know there were family secrets in years past—do an admirable job of discussing those elephants, such as when the FAA demanded payment for its employees who work at the event. They talked about it. The people who spend no small amount of time and money in making Lakeland a premier springtime aviation destination, deserve nothing less.

Catch up on all of our coverage from Sun ’n Fun 2022 here.

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