Podcast: EAA Chairman Jack Pelton Talks GA And AirVenture 2021

“It’s been a wild ride since last year,” says Jack Pelton, Experimental Aircraft Association chairman and CEO. EAA’s AirVenture Oshkosh returns next month following the cancellation of the 2020 show because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, response to AirVenture 2021 has been “phenomenal,” he says. Pelton discusses AirVenture’s highlights and events, changes and safety precautions it is making and what to expect if you go. He also gives insight on how EAA, general aviation and the pilot shortage has fared since the pandemic and more.

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Rush transcript:

Molly McMillin:            Welcome to today's Aviation Week Business and Commercial podcast. I'm Molly McMillin managing editor of Business Aviation for the Aviation Week Network. Joining me today is Jack Pelton, chairman of the board and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association. Thank you for joining us, Jack. Welcome.

Jack Pelton:                Hi Molly. Thanks for having me on. Good to talk to you again and look forward to sharing with you {news of the show.) We're only about 32 days away from AirVenture Oshkosh.

Molly McMillin:            Today, we'll be discussing the upcoming EAA AirVenture show. It runs July 26 through August 1st. Is that correct?

Jack Pelton:                That is correct.

Molly McMillin:            To start with, AirVenture had to cancel last year show because of the pandemic. What kind of response are you getting this year from attendees and exhibitors and what do you expect?

Jack Pelton:                You know, it's been a wild ride since last year, so it will have been 24 months since our last AirVenture. And even heading into the end of 2020, and even in January or February of 2021, we were still very nervous and unsure as to whether the pandemic would have gotten to a place that would allow us to have a mass gathering like this event. And once we got to the place of being able to decide that primarily because of the vaccine and the numbers getting better, that the show would go on. The response has been absolutely phenomenal. We have presale of tickets and camping and other things that are currently ahead of the pace of where they would have been at the same time in 2019.

                                   So if you look at June of 2019, which was our record AirVenture, as far as attendance, we're actually outpacing that. Our exhibitors as far as, the pent up demand of them wanting to be at a place face-to-face with their customers to conduct business has also been really, really successful. We're down a few exhibitors, but it's... I mean, it's literally a few, we're at 97% of what we had in 2019 our record year. And most of the ones that were down are either international exhibitors or companies that may at this point still feel a little bit too stressed to be able to send their workforce, to be able to support coming to the event for seven plus days. All the indicators are extremely positive and it's going to be a incredibly well attended event.

Molly McMillin:            And you've made several changes, I think. Right? I noticed that it sounds like the exhibitions will be spread out a little bit more. Can you talk about some of the things you've had to do to change?

Jack Pelton:                We started the process at the end of 2020, and then as every week that would go by, as the situations with the pandemic would change, we would be able to deviate from what our original intention. So you can imagine, so we're sitting here in January and we're saying, masks are going to be mandatory. Crowd size will have to be limited; six feet spacing; can we even have this event? And if you did, what would it look like and what would it be? So as time evolved and the knowledge of what you could and couldn't do and what the science was saying, we put into place some things that we thought were underlying support of being able to have events. So we started with recognizing that it just wasn't a good idea to have any major large indoor banquets, which was our lifetime award dinner.

                                   And some of the other things that had a thousand people in relatively confined areas. So we made decisions early on to start size limiting. So, an example of that one, we just canceled it (the dinner) and we said, ‘It's not fair to say that you get to pick and choose half of the people that normally go.’ Of the concert that we had, Ford Motor Company, who sponsors that, we sat down with them. And they said, because we’ve got to make the decisions early on in procuring a band and doing all of that, 2e're not sure which way it's going. So let's just go ahead and cancel the concert, which is a Monday night event where everybody's shoulder to shoulder with about 4,000 or 5,000 people in the Plaza.

Our forums, our workshops, our big Theater in the Woods area where we have a lot of key speakers – at first we limited the total crowd size in those venues to about half. We've since been able to expand that with getting almost back to full capacity. Not six feet (spacing), but at least where people weren't rubbing, literally rubbing elbows. And in doing all this Molly, we did it with weekly meetings. If it was not weekly, every couple of weeks with the local health authorities, the local hospitals, the local fire departments, everybody that's involved in the State of Wisconsin relative to health and safety dealing with pandemic. And it was with full understanding and compliance and buy-in as to what they felt comfortable because they have to issue us the permits to operate, to be able to run our camp ground, to be able to run our food events and those things.

We looked at our flight line, which is three and a half miles long. And we said, ‘Is there a natural way of spreading people out?’ And we came to a new concept where for the aerobatics line, there'd be two shows centers, one north and one south that could operate simultaneously. So it didn't naturally create everybody wanting to be right in the middle of it, it actually spreads people out.

We instituted a different way on the admissions of encouraging people to buy in advance and we would send your wristbands and parking credentials to you so that you didn't have to stand in a line and go up to a window. And again, just to alleviate that strain and pressure of people being all packed in one area. And about 60% of the people who have done the pre-sale have signed up for the, what we call it, the Express Arrival to get you into the event.

                                    So lots and lots of looking at it every week and making decisions. We're at a point now where a lot of corporate parties, we limited them to 50 people or less so that you didn't get these massive gatherings. And we said, even though things have gotten even a little bit better since we've made those decisions, we're sticking with what we got and met with the health department this week again to go over a final plans. Everybody's green-lighted that. They all feel comfortable and good that that's not going to create an environment that's going to be problematic with the pandemic. We've now got about 50% of the people in the State of Wisconsin and about, I think, 47% of the United States who's had at least one shot. So we're good to go. We feel good about it. We feel that it's going to be safe.

Molly McMillin:            I think I read where you're having a lot of extra sanitation stations set up around the field. Is that right?

Jack Pelton:                We are spending a lot of money on using a company called Jani-King who's a nationally known, highly reputable (company) that does stadiums and outdoor events and golf tournaments and industrial complexes for sanitizations and disinfecting. And so we're going to have 700 hand sanitizing stations across the facility. We're going to be doing nightly sanitization of the exhibit halls and food areas, our trams at night we'll also do the same disinfecting, a lot of just the restrooms and shower houses and the campgrounds and that stuff. We're taking extra caution and care to have a lot of people that will be doing that kind of cleaning and sanitizing.

Molly McMillin:            It sounds like you all have thought of a lot. Now, I think I read that you're not checking vaccination cards or requiring masks, is that right?

Jack Pelton:                No, that's correct. Our signage is going to be... I think in kind of in line with what you're seeing today in most places, which certainly if you've been vaccinated, no mask is required because that's the latest guidance by the CDC, especially since we're an outside event. And that, if you haven't been, we encourage you to distance and wear a mask but we're certainly not going to enforce it or require people to do that.

                                   We learned a lot at Sun 'n Fun and some other events that we've been to, to see how do people behave, and we're at this stage where we are in the pandemic and we feel that you got to leave some of this to people's level of what their own personally comfortable with. And some of that may be the decision not to come because of that. We understand that if you're not comfortable do not come. In the indoor exhibit halls, we created some additional exhibit space so that we could spread out the number of exhibits in a hall so that they... It provides wider aisles between exhibits and more spaces between them so that we can still have the same number exhibits, but spread over much more of the facility, which we think also helps reduce the congregation of people if you will.

Molly McMillin:            Now on the exhibits, are you spreading them somewhere else other than the big hangers? Will some of them be outdoors or how does that work? Do you have room elsewhere for them all?

Jack Pelton:                Yeah, so we have a normal cadre of existing outdoor exhibits, which a lot of them are the aircraft manufacturers. They have nice open sided exhibits outdoors which are,  CDC says, they're very safe and people can wander through those. And we have our indoor exhibits, they were in four major exhibit halls. We've taken about a third of those out and moved them to another location where we've put up a tent facility that was used for our Innovation Plaza last in 2019. And we've been able to spread them through that area. So, yeah, there's more places you have to go to find all the exhibits but they're all there. And exhibitors are still all there.

Molly McMillin:            Before we talk about the highlights this year, I wanted to ask you about the tough decision last year to cancel the show. How difficult was that decision for you all to make?

Jack Pelton:                Well, we started in March of 2019 when all of a sudden we all had stay at home orders. We fortunately have a great IT department here that quickly got everybody mobilized to be able to work at home. And then we just watched it and met every day as a leadership team to go through where are things. And we had a go-no-go decision date in May 2019, because at that point in time, we start spending large amounts of money on tent set up and rentals and costs that you could never recover. So we decided that by the first week of May, we had to make a tough decision as to whether it's go-no-go and based on the environment situation that time. There was just no possible way we could have had the event.

                                    We would have never been able to get the approvals or never be able to have what would have been a normal AirVenture that just... There was no vaccine. The numbers were still rising like crazy, as you remember, all the way up through September of 2019. So it was hard financially to make the decision, but from the health and safety of our members and guests that come here, it was the absolutely the only thing we could do. Because we really, really care about our people and the people that come here and we didn't want to be a problem for the nation.

Molly McMillin:            What kind of impact did that have on your organization financially? How did you handle that?

Jack Pelton:                Financially, it was a huge loss in the millions and millions of dollars, but fortunately over the last five to six years, we have run this organization not to live year by year. We've run it like a business. We purposely have built reserves that at the time the reserve concept was around acts of God. What if there's a terrorist activity? The acts of God being, what if the thing we have a weather event that just shuts the whole thing down. What if there are terrorists? What if there... Anything that could possibly cause you not to have the event. So certainly, on that list was not a pandemic. We had not used that as one of our scenarios as to why we wanted to make sure every year we put any of the profits that we made into a reserve that would allow us to operate a full year without having any income.

                                    And that saved the day. We were able to draw, not deplete, but we're able to draw on that to get us through the last year while continuing to run the association and still deliver to our members magazines every month, webinars, workshops, and everything you could do virtually. We never missed a beat. And so, if you didn't know about AirVenture and you were a member, you never felt like EAA never slowed down, shut down, or did any of that, even though we might have been doing a lot of it from home.

Molly McMillin:            How did general aviation in general fare during the pandemic and where do you think it's going?

Jack Pelton:                That was really interesting because the ultimate takeaway is general aviation did just fine. And it was one of those that I think if you would have tried to guess where it'd go, I think we all thought it was going to be put us into a big, big, bad situation for general aviation. But it turned out that flying as an individual or with your family was still a very acceptable means of compliance for the pandemic protocols. And actually, if you looked at flying hours in late 2000, they exceeded the flying hours of 2018 and 2019 in the light GA piston aircraft segments.

                                   People had time on their hands. The experimental amateur built kit manufacturer business boomed; people were buying kits. And they had time now that they were working from home to build them. It was amazing to see that happen, which was a real shot in the arm actually, positive shot in the arm. And then the new aircraft sales for a lot of the OEMs were not great and some of that is you couldn't get out to clients to have the sales process. But the people did a lot of upgrades to their airplanes during that period of time. So the avionics business is very, very good. Coming out of this, it's good to see. I think one of the indicators is the exhibitors didn't fall off because they all stayed profitable during that period of time and now they're hoping that they'll see another, as a result of AirVenture, another spike upwards as far as financially doing real well.

                                    And you look at the airlines, certainly people were looking for ways to travel, with the airlines reducing the capacity of flights and numbers of planes and putting so many (out-of-service). A lot of people had to use GA if they absolutely needed to travel. So that was positive but then, the airlines are bouncing back faster than they thought they would also. Reading a lot about the pilot shortage going into the pandemic and wondering whether that would that delay the recovery. And now the airlines are saying, they're looking at 2022 to be in close to back to normal, if not early '23.

Molly McMillin:            What have you seen on in the pilot training field?

Jack Pelton:                It's slowed down at first and part of that was trying to understand what was going to be allowed or not allowed. I think we finally have gotten to a... It was tough. (It was during the time people were asking) "Okay, do I wear a mask and to go to a restaurant.  And what are the rules? What's the rules of engagement?” There was a lot of that. But  a lot of the training providers found ways to (train), with sanitization of the planes, keeping doors open and cleaning them after a flight and having the instructor and the student both wear a mask. They got comfortable that that was going to be acceptable and not create a spreader event. So it was kind of a dip; it slowed down and then picked back up.

                                    And a lot of the flight training schools that I talked to, and some of the FBOS have said that they're getting close to being back to back to normal. I think also there was some messaging that went out. I know we in GA promothed this. The process to get to a job with the airlines takes some time. … You’ve got to get your ratings, you’ve got to get your hours - number of total time hours to be qualified to get that interview. And that takes a few years. And with the projection that the pilot shortage was going to continue, folks continued then to say, "This is still a viable track because at the end of it, through this pandemic, there will be jobs." And so it held up pretty well.

Molly McMillin:            That's good. Well, since we're getting a little bit to the end of our time, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to ask you what are some of the biggest highlights of AirVenture this year.  It looks like you have a lot of air shows and a lot of things planned.

Jack Pelton:                We do. Every day will be a sky full from the early afternoon on into the evening. Lots of different types of airplanes, world-class aerobatic performers to the Air Force Special Ops (demonstrations.) We were supposed to have the Canadian Snowbirds but they can't get cleared to come down to the United States yet. But most years we don't have those military demo teams and you still have a fabulous show. We've got a tribute to the end of World War II with a fantastic collection of various World War II kinds of aircraft being flown.

                                   We're hoping to have a couple of the mobile aerial airplanes. There's possibly two of them that might for the first time do some demo flying that the public will get to see on this future forum of transportation. The Goodyear Blimp is going to here. We're going to have two night air shows – on Wednesday and Saturday that always ends with probably one of the world's greatest fireworks displays. On the other nights, there's a Fun Fly Zone where we have STOL airplanes doing demonstrations and with ultralights and paragliders. There's something for everybody all day and all night.

                                   And this year is a big year. For this year, Boeing has underwritten that anybody the age of 18 and under get in free. So it's a great time if you have not brought your kids or you're thinking about coming, but they're worried about affording it with the whole family - this'll be a great year to bring your kids and give them an opportunity to see all the various aspects of aviation and see some great forms and lectures and workshops. And we have Kid Venture, which is probably the world's best hands-on activity for young people in learning about aviation. So it's going to be a great year.

Molly McMillin:            Sounds like a lot of fun. Well, I'm looking forward to seeing you and everybody there. We are at the end of our time. And I really appreciate you joining us, Jack. That was a really great discussion.

Jack Pelton:                Thank you, but Molly it's good to catch up with you. And I know I'll see you here. Somewhere, probably either in the media tent or somewhere and I'll be curious to talk to you and see what did you see or what was new and different from in the aviation community that you got to see.

Molly McMillin:            Great. Thank you all for listening. If you have any comments, please feel free to contact me at [email protected]. You can subscribe and download this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, and Google play. Thanks for listening and for joining us. I hope to see many of you at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh.


Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.