Performer Fees: Dissecting the Dilemma

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In 1984, a young pilot by the name of Patty Wagstaff landed her first air show. She was thrilled to earn $300 for her first aerobatic performance. Then, over time, as she gained more skill and lower altitude waivers, Patty raised her fees.

Now, nearly 25 years later, Patty Wagstaff is a household name (at least in air show households) and she commands top dollar for her performances… more than 30 times her starting fee. Even so, she says she’d need to charge more than twice her current fee to actually make a profit, if she didn’t have a major sponsor.

“As self-employed air show pilots, we have no pension plans, no fallback safety net,” Patty explains. “Sponsors fill that gap for us. It’s a tough business. You can’t get ahead without a sponsor.”

Patty’s story is one of success against great odds. Not only does she get paid by her sponsor, but she also earns a fee from each air show. Many performers receive product support from several sponsors, but relatively few earn a steady income from a major sponsor. They charge fees just to cover operating expenses. At the same time, they compete with others who charge much less or nothing at all, thanks to sponsorships, alternate sources of income, or a willingness to even lose money as an air show performer.

Others say there’s no way to shift the paradigm. There are basically five tiers, as explained by air show pilot Skip Stewart: The new performer flying for free or nearly free; the intermediate performer charging $2,000-$6,000; the top performer charging $6,000-$12,000; and the fully sponsored performer flying for free or nearly free. “The big variance is found in the sponsored pilot’s entertainment value,” Stewart says. “They range from best in the business to some who would have a hard time getting an intermediate fee.”

Taking all this into account, air show professionals generally agree it’s time to discuss these variances in an open forum to more fully understand the unusual pricing challenges the industry faces. Veterans, relative newcomers, solo acts, warbird pilots, comedy acts, duos, part-timers, full-timers and others from across the air show community were asked to bring their backroom, private conversations about fee discrepancies out into the open.

Does “Free” Really Mean Free?

Most air show organizers welcome sponsored pilots who perform at a reduced (or no) fee. But many argue there’s no such thing as a “free” performer, when you consider the expenses of providing hotel rooms, fuel, oils, vehicles, insurance, food, parties, plus whatever ad spots, booth space, chalets, tickets or other exposure tactics the sponsor requires. These combined support costs can be as high as – or even higher than — fees charged by unsponsored performers.

Bob Hall, air boss of Florida International Air Show, says an aerobatic team like AeroShell or a pyro-intensive act like Tora! Tora! Tora! charges more than $30,000 in performance fees, and that represents only 70 percent of their total cost to the show. Another 30 percent ($12,000+) is set aside for transportation, lodging and other accommodations. For single ship performers, the cost breakdown of performance fees to accommodations costs is generally 50/50 or even 40/50. The point being, for both sponsored and unsponsored acts, you can’t underestimate the extra costs beyond fees from the viewpoint of the air show budget.

Voodoo Air Show Economics

Speaking for the majority of performers interviewed, solo aerobatic performer Gary Ward commented that no correlation exists between a performer’s actual costs to be air show-ready, and his or her actual fee. “If there was, you could just shut down the civilian side of the business, because shows could not pay what it truly costs. To a very large degree, the air show business is subsidized by pilots who already have another significant source of income or wealth, and provide their airplane and services to air shows at much below what they are worth.”

Bob Carlton of Silent Wings Airshows flies hang gliders, a sailplane and biplane aerobatics. “A lot of the problems we deal with stem from the fact that air shows are often volunteer organizations,” he says. “Their misconception is, this is a hobby that we do for fun, so it should be free. To them, it looks like we’re demanding more than we deserve, because they themselves aren’t paid much, if at all.”

Unfortunately, it takes more than AV gas to be a prepared performer. In addition to maintenance and repair costs, performers point to insurance, taxes, hangar fees, flight suits, websites, media packets and other publicity, promotions, equipment, payroll, business overhead, etc. as very real and costly elements of professionalism.

Steve Oliver is a veteran air show pilot who, along with his wife, Suzanne, performs aerobatics, pyrobatics and skywriting with the Oregon Aero SkyDancer. He also senses that many show organizers don’t understand the erosive correlation between performers’ expenses and their fees, yet he sympathizes with their position. “It’s expensive to put on a show, and there’s a lack of community support at some locations. Ten or 15 dollars a ticket is pathetically low to watch an air show and view literally millions of dollars of military and civilian hardware.”

The Haves vs. the Have-Nots

Sponsorships are the tipping point for many performers. They mark the shift from struggling part-time performer who juggles a full time job and as many air shows as they can afford to fly, to polished professional with snappy flight suits for themselves and their crew, slick media packets, and more pressure than ever to prove their worth to all involved. Most unsponsored pilots seek a willing corporate support system to provide financial security in this business. Because without consistent financial backing, many performers feel they’re just a step or two from having to call it quits.

Kevin Russo flies air shows in a restored 1944 T-6 Texan. A Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserve at McGuire AFB, he flies with the 732nd Airlift Squadron. Kevin also flies G-IV Gulfstreams as a corporate pilot.

“Thank God I fly corporate, because there’s my salary. I have no sponsor, so I can’t get away with a small appearance fee. Without a sponsorship, some shows won’t hire me at all,” says Russo. “I have a good air show and a good product, but I have problems getting air shows because I won’t do it for free and someone else who has a sponsor gets in because they don’t charge as much (or at all). Bottom line: Performers cannot do shows for free! Take an appearance fee, at least. Otherwise, you hurt the industry and undermine professionalism.”

Resisting the Temptation to Undersell

Here’s the rub: Would-be performers often aren’t given the opportunity to fly an air show if they expect payment. If they don’t fly for free, they don’t get to fly at all. So, they cave in to get their break. Now they’re in, but they’re not known. So to land their next show, they offer themselves up for free… again. They’ll do anything to fly in their next air show. They may even buy their way in, purchasing blocks of tickets and maybe a chalet.

What air show would refuse them? From the event organizer’s perspective, money is in very short supply and very high demand. They want to stretch their performer fee budget as far as possible. So they press pilots to lower their prices.

One veteran air show professional contends, “I want to support the industry and do the right thing. But how can I justify spending money on a very good performer when there’s another very good performer willing to fly at my show for free?”

Sometimes, fee-charging performers face competition from unlikely sources, due to air show budget constraints. Just ask Dan McClung, who has the dubious distinction of being passed over by a set of port-a-potties, because they were less expensive than his performance fee.

Other times, performers face a high-stakes waiting game. Jacquie B. Warda started flying air shows five years ago, performing hard-core tumbling maneuvers in her single-seat Pitts S-1T. “Many air show organizers wait well past the ICAS Convention to hire the rest of their pilots because they feel we’ll be more willing to lower our fee as we get more desperate to add a few more shows to our schedule. That is just business and the organizer’s job is to get his product at the lowest price. We, on the other hand, should NOT agree to a lesser price simply because it is closer to the air show date.”

Select Entertainment Value; Not the Lowest Price

Skip Stewart has been flying aerobatics for 20 years and has been performing in air shows for eight years in his custom modified biplane.

“If a producer makes entertainment decisions based solely on price, the spectator loses and so does the industry,” according to Stewart. “And strange but true, the shows that can most afford the best performers are getting free acts. If this trend continues, only the large shows with jet teams will survive, and the unsponsored performer – no matter how highly skilled or entertaining – will not be able to stay in business.”

Michael Goulian agrees. The 1995 U.S. National Unlimited Aerobatic Champion and 2006 Art Scholl Memorial Showmanship Award recipient is a Red Bull Air Races competitor and performs air shows in his Extra 300SHP.

“The people who ultimately determine our future are the fans… and we’re not entertaining them very consistently. Aspects of the modern air show are downright boring,” Goulian contends. “The biggest and best air shows need to hire the best and most professional entertainers/performers. If you put the best entertainment in front of the fans, they will return year after year.”

Ken Hopper, president of Quad Cities Air Show in Iowa, subscribes to that same philosophy. “We bring in only the top-tier performers, ones that have proven themselves over the long haul and ones that are more expensive, but worth every penny, because the crowd — the true air show spectator — does know the difference.”

Solutions, Anyone?

Despite broad consensus that the status quo doesn’t work well, there’s virtually no agreement on how to fix the current system. Some performers argue it’s best to leave well enough alone. As veteran air show performer Greg Koontz says, “ICAS can’t do anything here…I do believe they need to take a stand for us somehow, but I don’t know how to go about that. Competition is what free enterprise is all about. This is America, where we have the opportunity to do what we want to do and pursue our dreams… and try to make some money while we’re at it.”

Patty Wagstaff flies unlimited hard-core modern aerobatics in her Extra 300S, representing Cirrus, in addition to more than a dozen product sponsors. “This is a controversial issue,” Wagstaff says. “By not charging a fee, you’re undercutting your perceived value and you’ll put yourself out of business when you can’t afford to give yourself away any longer. People argue, shows that hire no-fee acts then have more  budget to hire more performers, but that’s not what I see happening.”

Wagstaff suggests one possible remedy: “Maybe we need to organize into a guild or a union to set our own standards and organize in order to have some power. As individuals, we really don’t have any power.”

Who Says the System is Broken?

Michael Kennedy performs a solo historic act in a vintage warbird, a Vultee Valiant BT-13. This is a new act, but he has spent more than 25 years in formation aerobatic flying, most recently with the Swift Magic Team. “Face it: since Wilbur and Orville, pilots have flown because they love to fly. It has always been an underlying secret that pilots love it so much, they would do it for nothing if they had to.”

Meanwhile, the air show industry remains a loose compilation of individual players, with performers charging disparate fees for their performances. And according to Bill Wagner, chairman of Redding Air Show in California, that’s as it should be. “You can’t try to control performer fees any more than you could control gate fees or food and drink prices.”

Dave Schultz coordinates, produces, and facilitates air show operations throughout North America. Schultz believes that, “The air show industry needs to stay a free market system with no price controls. Performers will be able to try to get as much money as possible for their performances, but also need to understand that air show budgets are finite.”

According to Schultz, “Most fees are reasonable. The differences we are seeing from performers show two different thought processes within the industry: First, fees are higher for performers in the ‘business’ of air shows and not just the weekend hobbyist. Secondly, skill level also dictates fee structure. We have some very talented folks who deserve the money they get. Some newcomers that are low-priced now will be able to get that same high amount of cash once they have more name recognition in the air show business.”

By nature, air show performers are highly individualistic and independent. They have carved out careers by creating personas and acts that set them apart from the others. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect them to assimilate into a regulated industry that sets forth prescribed fee structures for performances that defy categorization.

But if conditions are to improve within the existing framework, all industry members must be willing to focus on shared priorities that elevate the industry as a whole, exercising the simplest elements of professionalism: mutual respect, fairness, flexibility, dependability, consistency, safety, and attention to detail.

As Jacquie Warda says, “The key is to simply do what they hired me to do and then some. I believe it’s not about the flying. Most people don’t want to deal with someone who’s a pain in the ass. Being easy to work with is a huge factor. The flying takes about 15 minutes; that leaves a lot of time to help make the show a better one.”

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Estelle Brown is a freelance writer and independent public relations specialist based in northeast Ohio.