Air Show Traffic Remains a Solvable Problem

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One of the accepted definitions of traffic is: Vehicles Moving on a Road or Highway. Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather once observed that Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic. And nowhere is that more true than in the traffic lanes coming to an air show.

Nothing instills fear and dread in the hearts of air show fans quite like the specter of long traffic lines. And few things can sink a show faster than a history of traffic problems. If fans were asked to choose between being stuck in traffic on a hot air show day and having a tooth filled without Novocain, they may have to think about their answer. And while the Novocain option is not one of the questions on ICAS survey forms, surveys clearly show that one of the things fans dislike most about going to an air show is the fear of traffic snarls. Nearly 25 percent of air show fans say traffic is the one problem most in need of improvement. And when asked, “What are some real or perceived negative aspects related to attending an air show?” 35 percent of responders said traffic.

Clearly long lines of stop and go traffic on a hot summer day are no one’s idea of a good time.    And with the advent of social media, air show goers are quick to express their displeasure if they are unhappy. Unlike baseball or football stadiums where ingress and egress routes are designed into the parking lots, airports are not designed for rapid influxes of large volumes of traffic, thus creating the challenges faced by so many shows across the country.

“People will accept long lines but only if those lines keep moving,” said air show consultant Mike McCabe of AirSupport. “Walt Disney figured that out more than 50 years ago. It’s when those lines come to a complete stop for extended periods that people start getting upset,” he said.  McCabe works with a number of different shows around the country and resolving traffic problems is one of his biggest concerns. “All too often, if there are traffic problems, it’s because show organizers haven’t spent enough time planning. This is really the unglamorous part of an air show but it’s the first thing customers encounter, and because it’s the first thing, it becomes one of the most important aspects of a satisfactory experience,” McCabe said.

There are no hard and fast standards for equating the number of people coming to the show to the number of cars to be parked, but there is enough experience in the industry to come close. And planners have to build a parking system that allows for a wide degree of variability. He said it starts with a realistic estimate of the size of the crowd and if new shows are unsure about their planning they can turn to established events in their community, such as county or state fairs, and ask for their input and advice. “It doesn’t take a large crowd to create a world class traffic jam so you want to plan for multiple routes for both access and egress and be able to process as many cars as possible as fast as possible.” McCabe said. Not only does this increase customer satisfaction, it enhances safety. It may mean more people handling vehicles but the results are worth it.

In McCabe’s view, publishing an air show schedule prior to the show is a major mistake that compounds traffic management problems, especially for shows that get a jet team. “We all know that people come to a show to see the jets, and if we tell them in advance when the jets will fly they will all come later to the show and skew the traffic patterns,” he said.

McCabe recommends publishing the time the gates will open and, if desired, include a list of performers, but that’s it. Then, he insists, the gates should be staffed and ready to admit fans a full hour early. “Some people always show up early and if you don’t get them onto the field quickly you will begin with a backup that you may not be able to overcome.” Besides, he says, the quicker you get them onto the field the happier they will be and the more money they will spend.

First time shows need to get it right the first time or they will suffer the consequences. Getting it right the first time was a painful lesson for the California Capital Air Show in Sacramento when it began ten years ago. Organizer Darcy Brewer cringes when she recalls the problems they encountered the first year. “We had the Blue Angels for our first show. Our traffic management plan was inadequate and the freeways around us were blocked for hours. It was a mess that haunted us for the next three years. We fixed the problems after the first year but it took two more years of serious media work to convince a lot of our fans to start coming to the show again,” she said.

The solution was to bring all of the various law enforcement and safety agencies together to talk over the problem and brainstorm solutions. This included seven state, county and city law enforcement agencies, plus four fire departments. It worked so well that the agencies now use the air show as one of their annual tabletop emergency planning exercises.

The show’s public safety director is Sergeant Scott McCartney with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office who has worked with the show since its inception. He is also tasked to the California Office of Emergency Services. “Because of earthquake issues, the possibility for dams above us to fail, along with the potential for other natural disasters, we have become very adept at figuring out how to move 100,000 people or more within a very short time,” he said.

McCartney and Brewer both admit they didn’t anticipate the large crowd when they planned for their first show a decade ago. “We didn’t have enough gates and had issues with our mass transit system,” said McCartney. After the first year of what he described as “major chaos,” he was put in charge of all traffic control around the show. “I believe in collaboration among the surrounding agencies so I partnered with our city traffic engineer, county transportation officials, state agencies, and brought in the local service clubs that handled parking for the show. With all of their input we developed a traffic and parking plan and set up a central command post with direct communications to all traffic and parking points,” McCartney said.

Social media had yet to emerge as a communications tool so part of the plan included the use of the show’s web site showing all of the gates and the best routes for fans to take depending on the route they used. The show handles about 45,000 people each day. “We designed a mechanism that allowed them to leave the same way they entered. We also developed bus lanes so nothing would hold them back. They were able to enter and leave without interruption,” he said.

After the chaos of the first year, McCartney said things turned around remarkably well. “After our second show we had traffic back to normal around the airport in 55 minutes. After the third show it was down to 48 minutes and has gone down every year. Today traffic around the airport is restored to normal within 30 minutes and has resulted in outstanding ratings from the jet teams and recognition by ICAS as one of the best in the business.

The 2015 Chippewa Valley Air Show in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was slammed by a larger than expected crowd over the 4th of July that created its own share of issues. The show is a fundraiser for the Chippewa Valley Council of the Boy Scouts of America. It was the first show in several years and, because they had the Blue Angels, they experienced record crowds. They were so caught by surprise that it resulted in long lines, traffic snarls and some very heated and hurtful comments on social media by some of those trapped in the traffic.

“We weren’t sure what to expect for attendance. It was a holiday weekend with great weather and about 40,000 people came out on Saturday. Some of our fans were in lines longer than expected but we opened up our overflow parking lots and used busses to get everyone on the field before the Blue Angels flew,” said organizer Matt Hill. He said everyone was off the field within 90 minutes.

Hill said part of the problem for their show is that they are not close to major freeway access points. “We are a small, regional field so access is limited. Our major takeaway from this experience was to recognize traffic problems sooner and open up the overflow parking lots earlier. We had a plan in place but not having faced such a large crowd before we didn’t anticipate the problem,” he said. He praised local law enforcement for working so closely with them which helped minimize the problems. Hill said they had one person dedicated to social media for a week before the show to keep fans updated, including traffic and parking options during the show.

While there were some nasty comments posted on social media, Hill said the vast majority of comments were positive. “Our fans realized we are all volunteers who are working to benefit the Boy Scouts,” he said.

One of the things that slowed traffic for the Eau Claire show was the need to collect money from people as they drove onto the field rather than after they were parked…a practice discouraged by many, but at some airports, such as Eau Claire, there is simply no other choice and it is done successfully at a number of shows around the country.

“If you are going to take money from the cars as they come in you need as many lanes into parking as you can open, and you need as many people as possible taking money,” said Jeffrey Shapiro of Solutions Events Services. He has developed a real-time parking and tracking system using proprietary software. “The most common errors that air shows make in handling traffic are parking one car one or two at a time and using only one parking lot at a time. Some shows collect money from one or two cars at a time when they should be doing it from 15 cars at a time.  It’s no wonder that fans get upset,” he said.

Some shows argue that there is only one way into an airport and only one way out. “There is no such thing as one way in and one way out,” Shapiro said. “To begin with, every road has two lanes so there can be two lanes in and out. Also, shows sometimes fail to look at or explore other options.” Shapiro said there is often private property around an airport that can be used for access or for parking that would be available if someone were to ask. “I can often find four or five ways in and out simply by asking. Sometimes it just takes a different set of eyes to get a different perspective,” he said.

For example, Shapiro recalled a show that had serious problems that created a six mile backup.  The show was using a rectangular grass field for parking but the curb cut was in the wrong location. He contacted the city and got them to carve a temporary driveway into the parking lot.  This gave them two new lanes and said the backup was eliminated the following year.

Shapiro said much of traffic management is simple math. “The reality is that 35-40 percent of fans show up between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.  So you should plan for 50 percent. If you are expecting 10,000 cars throughout the day that means you need to be able to receive 5,000 cars during that time. Then you need to determine if your roads will handle the volume. And you need to be able to have enough gates to park 1520 cars at a time. It’s a statistical numbers game and if you can’t handle the volume you’re stuck before you begin,” he said.

At the Rocky Mountain Air Show in Golden, Colorado, organizers did a remote show this year at a new venue that had limited access as well as infrastructure issues. “We were at a park on the Aurora Reservoir outside of Denver and we put in a lot of effort creating traffic and parking plans, but the demand was greater than predicted and very quickly we became overwhelmed,” said organizer Scott McMillan.

They normally do their show at the nearby Broomfield Airport and they were offered a show by the Thunderbirds, which was the first time a jet team was to appear in the Denver area in 20 years. Unfortunately, the airport wasn’t able to handle the team so organizers did their regular show at Broomfield and created a separate event with the Thunderbirds at the remote location on a different date.

The traffic problem they experienced occurred on Saturday. By Sunday they had worked out many of the kinks. “We took a lot of media heat for the problems we encountered and we responded head on. We gave refunds to people who had tickets but couldn’t get into the event and that accounted for 20-25 percent of our revenue. This was a huge hit to our budget and represented our profit for the show, but it was important to maintain credibility with our fans,” McMillan said.

There were a lot of unkind things said on social media about the problems. “Our Facebook page was hammered. There were a lot of angry people and rightly so. They expressed their anger on Facebook, Twitter, and all of our other social media outlets.” McMillan said they responded to these comments as quickly as they could, and overnight were able to revamp their traffic and parking plan and get it on their Facebook page. “A lot of people saw our updates and responded appropriately,” he said. The fixes they put in place on Sunday worked well and they were able to get another 10,000 people into the venue.

“We learned that we will no longer take money from cars as they enter the parking lots. That really slowed us down. Next time we will add the price of parking to the price of the tickets which should speed the process,” said McMillan. “We changed our traffic plan, worked with law enforcement and park management and we put our heads together to understand what happened and what we could adjust.”

McMillan said they were able to open more gates which made a big difference. They were also able to utilize more space on limited roads. “We also widened the choke points which reduced congestion and made a big difference,” he said.

McMillan admits they weren’t 100 percent successful on the second day but said the changes turned into an overall big improvement so they could get more vehicles in. “We will do a remote show there again next year and have already identified two new parking areas. The city is willing to do some dirt work to make improvements that will give us access to another 20 acres which we can use. They had already slated that area for improvement, recognizing that if they want large events of any kind in this location in the future they need to make changes,” McMillan said.

Another benefit of the problems they experienced was that all of the local law enforcement agencies now understand the benefit of having one traffic management plan in place rather than three plans. “This may seem obvious but, since no one anticipated this becoming an issue, we didn’t adequately address it,” he said.

One thing still in the works, according to McMillan, is limiting the number of tickets that will be sold. The limit will be determined by the number of cars they can park. They are also considering whether to switch to online ticket sales only. “If we do that we will make it clear that if we are sold out then don’t come out,” McMillan said.

It can be argued that no one understands traffic and parking issues in the air show business better than the folks at the KC Aviation Expo and Air Show in Kansas City, Missouri. Since 1995 they have been holding their show at an urban airport that has almost no parking and from the very beginning have relied on outlying parking lots and city transit busses to get their fans to and from the show. The local metro bus system was economical, efficient and highly experienced. Then federal regulations reared their ugly head and the air show was forced to put the contract out for bid. And that’s when the wheels came off.

Because the local transit authority receives federal funds, air show director Ed Noyallis said the Federal Transit Administration has ordered all events that want to use local transit buses to put the bus service out for bid. He said they learned this is a national policy which finally caught up to them. Only if there were no bidders could the local transit system provide the service. But they received bid from numerous companies, both in state and out-of-state. The bus company that won the bid was a highly experienced school bus company, but had never done an air show.  And school busses have only single doors unlike transit busses with double doors. This change alone slowed the loading and unloading process considerably. On top of that, Noyallis said the first day of the show the company didn’t follow the parking plan that had been used so successfully in the past.

“They thought they knew more than we did and they had to learn the hard way. They got people to the field okay, but when the show was over, we wanted them to load ten busses at a time so the lines would keep moving and we had designed our bus parking areas accordingly. Instead, they chose to load one or two busses at a time. We suddenly found people waiting in line under a hot sun and we had to quickly spool up to provide water to these people because they were dropping like flies from heat and dehydration.

Noyallis said the bus company had poor ground supervision and chose to ignore the advice and guidance of experienced air show personnel. “They had never done an air show before and didn’t believe us when we told them how to do it. Fans weren’t used to standing in lines to leave the show and suddenly social media outlets were lighting up with complaints. You name it, they said it,” Noyallis said.

After fans were finally returned to their cars after the first day’s show, Noyallis said they met with the bus company people and convinced them to rely on the show’s experience. “It took almost two hours to get our fans off the field on Saturday. It took less than 45 minutes on Sunday. That was not as good as we would have liked but it was an improvement,” he said.

Rapid people movement is a must at the KC show. “The Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport is in the middle of downtown Kansas City and we would put the city in gridlock if everyone came downtown to park. Our system works so well because the busses drive looped routes that reach all of the lots,” he said. Fans can park in any lot they choose along the published bus route and can get off the busses where they got on. “We use 75 busses and each route only takes about ten minutes,” Noyallis said.

Because the lowest bidder was more expensive than what the air show had been paying the local transit system, transportation costs ate into the show’s profits considerably. “We were lucky this year. Because we had the Blue Angels there was no red ink. We had a big enough crowd that we actually made money. Some years we don’t,” Noyallis said.

While it is always tempting to charge fans to ride the busses, Noyallis said that doesn’t work.  “We tried it one year and the logistics were unbelievably bad. We had to provide volunteers at every bus stop, keep them supplied with change, water, security, etc., and it just wasn’t feasible.  Now we build the cost into the ticket price,” he said.

No matter whether you are an air show newbie or and old pro, there is no substitute for planning.  And the more the better. Unfortunately for the Lynchburg Regional Air Show in Lynchburg, Virginia, they were given just five months to prepare for the Blue Angels. “The show in 2011 was the first show we had done in 29 years so there was not a lot of experience in our community to draw from,” said air show president Dave Young. “The Blue Angels called in December 2010 to offer us a show in May 2011.  We accepted but we had just five months to pull it off,” Young said.

Like the KC air show, the Lynchburg show had to park all attendees off the field and bus them in. That was no small challenge with 32,000 people coming to the show but they were able to use the parking lots of local colleges and universities which eased the stress. But Young said they still had their problems. The airport is in the county but it is owned by the city. Five law enforcement jurisdictions have to come together to make the traffic and parking process efficient.  This includes the state police, local sheriff, city police, airport police and campus police at the colleges where they will be parking cars if needed. And the security force at the local nuclear power plant offered its help. “In 2011, we did not have a good command and control center or an adequate management structure set up for law enforcement and public safety. There was an obvious lack of communication and lack of clear expectations on the role each agency would play. Now, as we go into 2016, we will have the local sheriff in charge. We have built up tremendous cooperation among the agencies and do regular tabletop exercises. We expect everything to go a lot smoother than it did before.” And this year, Young said, they will be able to park most of their fans on the airport which will avoid the need for most of the bus transportation.

Another improvement will be the use of an air show app that has been developed to keep fans abreast of conditions, plus electronic signage. “We have designated parking areas which are spelled out when people purchase tickets in advance. Specific tickets will be assigned to specific parking areas. We have also established multiple entrance and exit points with all lanes coming in early and all lanes going out when the show is over,” Young said.

The show will be supported by traditional advertising and news media coverage, including an airborne traffic reporter from a local radio station giving up-to-the-minute traffic reports as fans drive to the show. An additional tweak to the parking plan includes a graduated price structure for tickets to the show. The cheapest tickets will be sold first, and the closer they get to the show date the more expensive the tickets will be, giving fans an incentive to get their tickets early.  “We are optimistic we will have a good flow of traffic into the show and that fans will be able to park and walk without difficulty,” Young said.

No matter how comprehensive the planning, however, Mother Nature has often demonstrated she is the one who is really in charge. The air show industry is replete with stories over the years of destructive winds, rain, hail, and a variety of other mayhem, both natural and man-made. This year it was the United States Air and Trade Show’s turn to experience such fury.

The annual event in Dayton, Ohio, is held on Father’s Day weekend and organizers can usually count on pleasant conditions. This year, however, the heavens opened and dumped eight and a half inches of rain on the city in three days, including the opening day of the show. “With our soil being mostly clay, this made for very ugly conditions,” said the show’s public safety director, Roger Doctor.

The show normally uses multiple remote lots but most are grass, which quickly turned to mud, throwing the entire parking plan into a tail spin. “We have a parking plan that has served us well for 30 years, but the rain forced us to completely revamp it in a 12-hour period when the lots became impassable. Cars were getting stuck in the mud and we had to quickly find paved parking areas and notify our fans, all within hours,” Doctor said.

As a former police chief, Doctor had a good relationship with local officials. He received great cooperation from all airport divisions including operations, law enforcement and management.  But the cooperation went beyond the airport. “The Dayton airport is actually located in the city of Vandalia and their city manager got on the phone and contacted local firms for permission to use their parking lots. The local bus company added extra busses and fans were able to get to the show on time. If everyone involved wasn’t eager to help the entire event would have collapsed,” Doctor said.

The challenge at Dayton was not only to find adequate parking in short order and get people to the show but, like every other show, they also had to keep cars moving to avoid long lines. With an average attendance of 70,000 they have always been prepared to park up to 35,000 cars. But that was under normal circumstances. “We always talked about having a Plan B and we had some ideas over the years but never formalized it because we never had to,” he said. In spite of all the changes Doctor said nobody missed any of the show. They just had to be patient.

“We were lucky this year that those lots were available to us, but the parking lots we used this year may not be available in the future. It was the first time in more than 30 years that we ever had to face this problem and we will be better prepared in the future,” he said.

No matter how long a show has been running and how well organized it is there is always the potential for problems. The Wings Over Houston show is in its 31st year but organizer Bill Roach says they still encounter problems at times or identify opportunities to improve the fan experience.

“One of the biggest changes we made over the years had to do with collecting money. We used to charge for parking as fans drove in but as we grew we began to back traffic up for five miles.  The solution was simple, however. We now have free parking,” he said. Shuttle busses are used to move people from the parking lots to the show and ticket prices have gone up to recover the lost parking revenue.

Parking space on the airport continues to shrink due to airport development and Roach’s team is watching the situation closely. “We had the Blue Angels last year and we were very close to maxing out our parking lots. Last year we were 90percent full so we will need to plan for the day when more parking is needed,” he said.

The success of the Houston parking plan is, like at other shows, the result of good relationships with local law enforcement and other organizations that handle the traffic. “We contract with the Houston Police Department to help move traffic and we pay a local Rotary Club and ROTC students to park cars. We’ve been working with the same people for many years, have several meetings with them ahead of time, and debrief after the first day to make sure we are all on the same page,” he says.

Roach said they are keeping an eye on the future and often find a need to tweak their routes in and out. He also says they know they will have to do more park-and-ride in the future so they are working now to get more of their fans to ride the busses. “We use three park-and-ride lots now and will have to do more in the future as our parking space is taken over by new buildings, but we are preparing for it and it’s going well,” Roach said.

In Ypsilanti, Michigan, the Thunder Over Michigan show has been going on for 17 years and organizers thought this year would be just like the past…that is, smooth traffic in and out. They believed that until a water main broke two weeks before the show, flooding three primary parking lots with one and a half million gallons of water. “There was no way our lots would dry out in time. We lost 25 percent of our parking and were expecting 75,000 people to see the Blue Angels,” said air show director Kevin Walsh.

The Ypsilanti show was saved because they found enough alternate parking space with multiple entry points, allowing them to bypass the flooded areas. “We were able to get people off the roads quickly. We separated the cars into eight lanes and processed 36 cars at a time. We knew that the more points of entry we could provide the faster traffic would flow.”

And if a show doesn’t have that flexibility, Roach said organizers need to be prepared to cut fences and install new gates, install new roads if necessary and do whatever else is required to get the job done. “We were allowed to put additional gates into our fences which gave us faster ingress and egress. This takes more people power to staff the gates but you will create havoc without them,” he said. In spite of the changes Roach said they did not receive a single complaint about their parking this year.

At the 2013 Oregon International Air Show (OIAS) in Hillsboro they were faced with a unique traffic problem….a problem that never materialized. Local media created a perception that the show just couldn’t overcome.

The Hillsboro airport, 30 miles west of Portland, is directly across the street from the Washington County fairgrounds. Since the date of the fair remains consistent from year to year, and the air show dates fluctuate with the availability of a jet team, the air show organizers agreed they would do all they could to avoid a conflict. Over the years they did their best to honor this agreement, to the point they even turned down jet team opportunities rather than risk the conflict.  But fearing the jet teams would stop calling if they said “no” too many times they had a change in attitude and going into 2013 they accepted a Blue Angels show on the same weekend as the fair.

“Not only was the fair unhappy with us but since the fairgrounds were right across the street we always used their parking lots for our fans,” said then air show president Judy Willey. She said not only did the decision create hard feelings with the fair board but the show lost valuable close-in parking space which the fair needed for its own crowd.

Willey and her staff met with fair organizers several times to discuss traffic management options and had what looked like a workable plan. They went to businesses around the airport for permission to use their parking lots, worked on improving traffic routes from two nearby freeway exits, and added additional signage to show the way. They also worked aggressively with public transportation agencies and encouraged ticket discounts for air show goers. They even provided a shuttle from the nearby lite rail station to the show. “We saw more people than ever before riding the train which was a real help because it cut down on the volume of cars we had to park,” said Willey. They also cross promoted the fair, urging fans to visit the fair one day and the air show the next.

Then, with plans in place, the reality of Sequestration slapped them in the face and they lost the Blues. And without a jet team or other military support, attendance fell, just as it did for every other show on the jet team schedule. Unfortunately, the news media never got on board. “The media only talked about how bad the traffic was going to be. They never talked about the changes we had made to improve traffic flows. This hurt both the air show and the fair. There were no traffic issues that year at all but the perception became reality,” she said.

Both organizations were upset with the media, blaming negative comments for hurting attendance. But Willey said they learned some important lessons. First, it forced them to identify additional parking areas which helped the show’s bottom line because revenue from parking on fair grounds property always went to the fair. The second lesson was going back to the policy of not holding their show on county fair weekend. “When the Blue Angels called about coming for the 2015 show we felt we could handle the traffic but the issues in the community were just too great. We told them we would only accept them before the fair or after and to they made it work for us.

In spite of the problems there were some lasting benefits. “We began selling parking passes ahead of time. When fans bought their tickets in advance they were also able to purchase parking passes for the more desirable lots. It worked well for us,” Willey said.

Current OIAS president, Bill Braack, said the show is maintaining its policy of not staging a show on the county fair weekend. They have reestablished a working relationship with the fair organizers and will again be using fairgrounds lots to park some of their fans. “There are always other lots we can use in the future if necessary but right now it is important to maintain good relationships with the fair and serve our fans the best way possible,” Braack said.

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Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.