Slated to get underway in a matter of days, the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In, which was cancelled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is projected to have the highest number of attendees in recent event history. This, according to Sun ’n Fun chairman John “Lites” Leenhouts, who was quoted by local paper The Lakeland Ledger as saying, “We never saw it coming,” he said. “We didn’t expect this to happen.” In fact, he told The Ledger, organizers were anticipating a far smaller-than-normal crowd.
The reason for the bullish projection is that ticket sales, Leenhouts said, are running “25 to 30% higher than the expo’s best year.” In terms of numbers, he didn’t say how many attendees that would come to, but the show has, without explanation, dropped the cap on daily attendance, which would have limited admissions to 30,000 per day.
Leenhouts said he had been expecting the event’s turnout to be lower than normal because of the ongoing COVID pandemic. Now the show is upping its orders for portable restrooms, and it’s trying to lease additional land adjacent to Sun ’n Fun for additional airplane parking and overflow camping (See Sun ‘N Fun COVID-19 Policy).
The pandemic has hit Florida especially hard, with more than two million cases over the past year and around 34,000 deaths. In Polk County, which is home to Lakeland—the site of the Sun ’n Fun event—of the roughly 60,000 residents, there have been more than 1,200 deaths and nearly 5,000 hospitalizations during that same time period.
One big thing that has changed is the level of vaccinations nationwide. In Florida, residents have gotten more than six million shots, with around 3.7 million Florida residents having been fully vaccinated. The state has a population of around 21.5 million.
Because it is an event of national stature, Sun ’n Fun attracts crowds from around the country, and from a number of foreign countries, as well. But, because it won’t require proof of vaccination—nor will it be asking or checking—to attend, there will be no way for the organizers to know what percentage of its attendees are vaccinated or not.
On the positive side, vaccinations nationwide are growing at a rapid pace, with nearly three million Americans getting a shot of one of the three approved COVID-19 vaccines every day. And because older people have been prioritized in the distribution scheme and because aviation’s demographic is older than that of the general population, there could be a high percentage of vaccinated attendees. We will likely never know. This calculus is complicated by the fact that there is a large and committed segment of the American population that is declining to get vaccinated, citing political and philosophical differences with the federal government-guided program.
Sun ’n Fun says that it will be doubling down on its safety measures, which will include a recommendation to wear masks throughout the grounds, a requirement to mask up to enter the exhibition halls, along with aggressive sanitation efforts and reminders to attendees to practice safe social distancing.
Plane & Pilot will be at the show reporting on all the aviation news that goes down, and this year the biggest news story is, without a doubt, the airshow itself.