Logistics: The Essential but Unglamorous Side of the Air Show Business

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Before Walt Disney opened the gates of Disneyland for the first time on July 17, 1955, he had to choose between restrooms and drinking fountains. Plumbers had been on strike just before the opening and by the time the strike was settled there was time to complete work on one but not the other. He wisely opted for the restrooms, but instead of being praised for having restrooms he was hammered for being too cheap to install drinking fountains. Such is the way of customer expectations. 

No air show fan is attracted to an air show because of its portable toilets, garbage cans or any of the other logistical infrastructure necessary for a successful show because those services are simply expected, but woe be to the air show that fails to meet those expectations, as many shows have learned the hard way. 

There are any number of “rules of thumb” to guide shows in determining how many restrooms they need, how many garbage cans they need, where to place them and how often to service them. But rules of thumb go only so far. Experience eventually takes over. Chuck Newcomb, long-time producer of the Cleveland National Air Show stated the obvious when he said, “Long lines lead to dissatisfaction.”  

Newcomb has since stepped down from the helm of the Cleveland show after 39 years, but he said: “We learned early on that we needed one portable toilet per 300 people and one handicapped toilet per 1,200 people.” Those numbers are their rules of thumb and the show still lives by them. 

For Darcy Brewer at the California Capital Air Show in Sacramento, it’s all about the service.  “When I get bids I look for the level of support they are willing to provide over the three days of our show. I want somebody on site who can make decisions, take action and resolve issues without having to wait for permission from someone off site,” she said. 

Whether it’s the executive restrooms adjacent to the sponsor chalets or regular portable toilets in the general admission areas, Brewer wants the toilets to be serviced before there is a problem, not after. “If they can’t do this for me they shouldn’t be there. It’s all about the guest experience,” she says. 

Brewer said price is important but said she doesn’t necessarily pick the lowest bidder. Service matters, too. “I have 1,900 feet of chalets with flushing toilets. My guys don’t leave the field. They are there when I need them and have trucks on the field for the duration of the show,” she said. 

Like Newcomb, Brewer said they have their own rule of thumb regarding numbers that are born from experience. “For the three-day event we require 300 portable toilets placed in pods where people congregate,” she said. She and her staff are constantly refining their operation with adjustments for access, placement and numbers. “The largest pods are where the most people congregate, including entrances and exits,” she said. Toilets are also placed about 150 feet from concession stands. “Along with the toilets, handwashing stations are a priority,” she said. Brewer and her staff review the plan with the local health department a month prior to the show to ensure not only compliance but an impeccable guest experience, cleanliness and accessibility.   

Ken Hopper has been producing the Quad City Air Show in Davenport, Iowa for the past 30 years. His best advice to a new show is to start with city and county health department officials to make sure the regulations are met. “Every jurisdiction has different regulations. Some require more toilets than others. In Davenport, for example, we are required to have one toilet per 100 spectators, segregated by gender, which really means one toilet per 50 spectators.  That’s a lot of toilets, but that’s the rule and I follow it,” he said. When confronted with a tight regulatory environment Hopper advises never to exaggerate your attendance numbers. It could come back and bite you. “I know of at least one instance where a show was cancelled before it opened on its first day because it didn’t have enough toilets based on stated crowd attendance expectations.”   

Hopper agrees strongly that the company providing the toilets must have personnel on the field all day every day and that they service the toilets each day after the show, not the next day before the show. He speaks from experience. “One year our toilet service person said he was tired and wanted to put off the servicing until the next morning. We insisted that he do it that evening.  He grumbled but did it. That night we had high winds rip through and blew over most of our toilets. Had we not serviced the toilets the night before we would have had human waste all over the field and it would have shut us down.” 

The Abbotsford International Air Show in Abbotsford, British Columbia is fortunate. They have ten buildings with installed, flushing toilets, a legacy of the days when Abbotsford played host to Air Show Canada, a major aviation exposition. They use portable toilets, too, mostly in areas away from the primary crowd such as campgrounds, but for their primary crowd they rely on the flushing toilets. 

Jim Reith is the president of the Abbotsford Air Show. He happily acknowledged that because of the infrastructure that was installed for the exposition they are over-toileted, giving them the ability to serve more than 30,000 people a day without adding more, but even at that they still need service. “We have 120 flush toilets, which is great for our fans, but they all flush to a single, holding tank which needs regular service throughout the show. We have service trucks running in a continuous loop all weekend,” he said. 

At the other side of Canada is Air Show Atlantic which moves to a new venue every year, creating a host of regulatory and logistical challenges. Executive Director Colin Stephenson of Halifax, Nova Scotia calls his the largest air show in North America without a home. Since 2008, he has produced the show in six different locations which requires him to learn the rules and regulations of each community, along with all of its suppliers, sponsors, and vendors.   

When it comes to toilets Stephenson said rules of thumb go out the window. “The provinces where we operate have guidelines for both health and safety which require us to have one toilet per 300 people.”  And because it is closely monitored he said he relies on professionals to manage them. “Fan experience begins with parking, ease of finding our gates, and, of course, having a clean restroom available when they need one. The nicer it is the longer they stay and the more money they spend,” he said. 

Stephenson said they group their toilets in several U-shaped pods across the field. Guests usually form a single line and can instantly see which unit is vacant. “This way we have a single line rather than 25 lines which reduces wait times,” he said. Part of the contract with the supplier requires two people from the company to be on site at all times and they never stop cleaning. “They don’t wait until the end of the day. They are constantly monitoring every unit and service them as needed. And to reduce their service needs he said they have no water or paper towels. Instead they rely on hand sanitizers at the wash stations. 

Dick Walstad, co-chair of the Fargo Airsho in Fargo, North Dakota, remembers all too well the problems they had with their toilets at one of their first shows and how innovation saved the day. “We had the Thunderbirds and a much larger crowd than expected. We were overwhelmed. Lines in front of the toilets were ridiculous. Toilets began to overflow and we had a mess on our hands and we couldn’t get any more toilets,” he said.   

They were able to get the toilets serviced but that didn’t solve the problem. They simply didn’t have enough toilets. Their solution was simple but effective. “We staked out a grassy area and put up screening and the men simply went inside and used the grass. It wasn’t ideal but it worked,” Walstad said. Now the show contracts for the number they think they need and adds ten percent.   

Garbage service can be another major challenge for air shows. Overflowing garbage cans are about as welcome as overflowing toilets. Most shows rely on volunteers using small trucks or other vehicles to patrol garbage containers and empty them before they begin to overflow.   

At the Abbotsford show they have a great rule of thumb when it comes to garbage containers.  “We get as many as possible,” Reith said. Throughout the year they recycle 55-gallon smoke oil drums and other containers by cutting off the tops and painting them. They have accumulated dozens of containers over the years and have learned to place them in the busiest areas. “We make sure that anyone with garbage in their hands is no more than 50-100 feet away from a container,” said Reith. 

Like many shows the containers are lined with heavy-duty, plastic bags which are emptied by a local service group. “They provide a dozen or so people who drive a set route along the ramp.  They start at one end and go back and forth all day long.” The bags are taken to a large, industrial dumpster located well away from the crowd which is emptied by the local garbage company. “The dumpster has enough capacity so that it is emptied on Monday after the show,” he said. 

At the California Capital Air Show they are fortunate to have the support of a local garbage company run by two brothers who are both pilots. “They are interested in the economic and educational aspects of our show and are willing to sponsor the garbage service in exchange for a chalet. We pay the hard cost of a limited number of crew over the weekend and they take care of the containers,” Brewer said.   

An interesting twist at the show is that the ramp is divided into five sections and volunteers compete against each other for cleanliness. “We set up containers where we know the people will concentrate, such as the exhibitor area, food court and crowd line, and have 40 kids out there at all times collecting trash on the ramp. They are monitored by a group of supervisors and they get prizes for doing the best job.   

But Brewer goes one step further. “Every two hours we take an aerial photo of the ramp.  Throughout the day, from the time the gates open until they close, we monitor all aspects of our show….gates, concessions, and even trash can placement. We adjust as necessary and go forward,” she said. 

At the Fargo Airsho they distribute over 100 small containers around the grounds and service them with volunteers driving golf carts or other small vehicles. “We keep traffic lanes open through the crowd for our service vehicles. Volunteers pop the plastic bags out of the containers, put in new ones and move on to the next. Bags are then taken to a central location for disposal. We keep a city garbage truck with a compacter on site and the city recycles the plastic containers,” Walstad said. 

To cut down on the volume of plastic being generated, he said the Fargo show has switched to using smaller water bottles, especially in the VIP area. “We noticed that people would open a regular size bottle of water and drink about half the water, and then toss it. A short time later they would grab another one and do the same thing. With smaller bottles they drink all of the water in each bottle and our volume of bottles showing up in our garbage cans has shrunk significantly,” Walstad said. 

At the Quad City Air Show Ken Hopper states the obvious about garbage: “There’s a lot of it.” His show contracts with the local garbage company which provides large dumpsters. A local Boy Scout troop is then enlisted to empty the containers and move the garbage to the dumpsters. “We make a donation to the troop, give them Gators to drive and they spend each day changing out the containers,” Hopper said. But that’s not all. “When each day’s show is over we use the Scouts to walk a FOD line to pick up anything that didn’t make it into a container,” he said. 

Their garbage cans are plastic, 55-gallon drums that are loaned to them by a local recycler. “He lets us borrow the drums and we place a recycling box next to each one. Our narrator constantly reminds our fans to pick up their trash and put the recyclables in the appropriate containers. We probably get about half of what is tossed, but that’s better than nothing,” he said. The recycling rights are given to a local Civil Air Patrol squadron in exchange for their help with the show. 

While garbage control is not regulated the same as toilets in the Nova Scotia area, Stephenson said it’s just as important and he leaves it to the professionals to manage. “We hire a sanitation company that has event experience. They bring everything we need, set out the containers, keep their team on site and constantly empty the containers. Being near the ocean we have a lot of issues with sea gulls so it is vital that we keep our ramp clean to avoid attracting birds,” he said.  

And he noted just how serious they are about it: “We don’t sell popcorn anywhere on the field because birds will flock in to pick up what is spilled and that increases the risk of a bird strike.”

As garbage containers are emptied the bags are taken back to a sorting and disposal area where recyclables and redeemables are separated. “Nova Scotia is one of the most advanced areas in North America when it comes to recycling and we build on that. We use volunteer groups to do our recycling and they keep the revenue,” he said. 

Another big challenge for air shows is security fencing. Options have changed over the years, providing greater flexibility in selecting the right fence for the job. Rope and stanchion fencing was the norm for many years but eventually the need for more robust fencing along the crowd line grew. At the Quad City Air Show, like so many other shows, the plastic, snow fencing is widely used. “Thirty five years ago all we could get for our crowd line was wood and wire snow fencing. It was heavy, awkward and hard to handle. We still use it in certain areas because it holds up well when kids try to hang onto it, but mostly we have replaced it with the heavy-duty, plastic fencing that is so common today,” Hopper said.   

Dick Walstad likes it for the Fargo Airsho for several reasons. “Not only is it an effective way to manage our crowd but it stops a lot of debris from blowing from the crowd onto the field when we have a wind,” he said.   

Ropes and stanchions are still in use at a number of shows where circumstances allow, but there has been a big shift to the type of fencing referred to as “bicycle racks.” These are the heavy, steel, stand-alone sections of fence that are about eight feet long and four feet tall with vertical slats. Shows like them because they are robust, visually attractive, and an eight foot section can easily be opened in a fence line, creating a gate for both people and vehicles.   

No matter the type of fencing, safety is essential. The California Capital Air Show uses a wide variety of fencing depending on where it is needed. “We surround our area with six-foot chain link fence and use shorter fencing to delineate specific areas on the ramp,” Brewer said. This includes a crowd line of 4,000 feet where the show sets up the familiar orange plastic fencing.   

Her show also has another problem from time to time when it comes to fencing because of the frequent droughts in Northern California. “If we have a hot, dry summer the earth becomes hard and compacted. We’ve learned that we have to drive our fence posts into the ground up to six weeks ahead of the show or it becomes very difficult for our volunteers to get the job done,” she said. 

At the Abbotsford show they have gone to the orange fencing like most other shows. “The main consideration is how much of a barrier do you need? We’ve learned, over time, where our fans will respect barriers and where they won’t,” Reith says. When safety and security are the issue they use the orange fencing. Elsewhere, Reith says, they can safely use ropes and stanchions to get the job done.   

Air Show Atlantic, meanwhile, finds itself operating under two sets of regulations. “The Canadian Air Force has its regulations and Transport Canada has another set. Rather than comply with one or the other we go beyond what each requires,” said Stephenson. “If a rope and stanchion is adequate we will use a fence. Usually the orange plastic snow fence is appropriate and is more than is required,” he said. 

For private areas such as the chalets or around the announcing stand they will erect six-foot wood fences and box them in. “These work well in areas where you don’t want people looking in,” Stephenson said.  In front of their chalets they use custom-made picket fences that are about three feet high and are built in eight-foot sections.   

The need for electrical power at air shows has increased steadily over the years as shows have become more attuned to the needs of their VIP areas, their food vendors and concessionaires.    Many shows provide generators while others require the vendors to provide their own. The consensus among shows is to do what works best for a given situation. 

The Fargo Airsho is able to tap into the airport electrical system for some of its vendors in a few locations and is willing to provide generators for others so long as they share their revenue with the show. Most of the show’s food service is provided under contract with one of the leading food service vendors which has its own equipment and its own generators.  

The California Capital Air Show relies extensively on generators to provide power up and down the ramp. They bring in four 40 kW generators and develop schematics showing what goes where. “We put the higher power users together when we can to minimize the number and size of generators that we need. Our power needs are always worked out well in advance and we have trained service people on site throughout the show to keep things running,” Brewer said. 

Like the other shows, Air Show Atlantic relies on portable generators wrapped in sound mufflers. “We use everything from 65 kW generators to small Honda generators to provide power from ticket booths to food vendors.   

At Abbotsford, generators are also widely used, including a 200 kW that Reith says could power a small city. The Abbotsford show is fortunate to have its own electrical distribution system installed in the field. But because there is no municipal power source where power is needed, the show ties its system into generators brought in for the weekend. “We have a lot of different power needs but we are able to electrify the field ourselves. Generators have to be sized correctly. We want to load them up but not overload them. We try to run our generators at about 80 percent of capacity, feeding power to freezers, refrigerators, coolers, displays, food concessions and the chalet area,” Reith says.   

Like the Abbotsford show, the Quad City Air Show has installed its own distribution system to get away from the large number of small generators it was dealing with. “About 25 years ago, we got sick of providing all of the small generators and worrying about the noise, the fuel and the above-ground wires. We received permission from the airport and installed more than four miles of underground cables, and buried junction boxes. Now we tie the electrical grid into three generators for our front line needs and four generators for our back line needs that include food vendors and other concessionaires,” said Hopper. He said every chalet is fitted with a four-gang outlet and the entire show can be wired in just one day. To cover the cost he said a local electrical contractor agreed to do the work in exchange for a ten year sponsorship.  

Another of the basics that air show fans expect is the availability of water. They usually aren’t thinking about it when they arrive but on a hot day it doesn’t take long for them to seek out liquids. While they assume they will be paying for soft drinks and other liquids, not all fans expect to have to pay for water and how water is made available can create some hard feelings. 

The Quad City Air Show has three small trailers set out with water spigots. Ice is dumped into the trailers to chill the water as it passes through the tubing. The trailers are then connected to potable water hydrants and fans can refill bottles and cups as they wander the ramp. “Our concessionaires don’t like it that we are giving away the water but I don’t want people dying on me or feeling they are being ripped off,” Hopper said. Like most other shows, free water is also available in first aid tents for those who have had too much sun. At some shows where there are military displays the military units bring in their water buffalos and offer free water. It usually isn’t very cold but it’s wet and it’s free.   

At the Abbotsford show, fans will find several options. “Fans can purchase water from the concessionaires on the field but the city provides us with a water trailer that allows fans to fill their own containers. We are fortunate to have a municipal water supply on our field so we make the most of it,” Reith said. 

Air Show Atlantic, meanwhile, relies heavily on bottled water that is sold by vendors and food concessionaires. But they provide a truck filled with potable water for the VIP area where high- end food is served,” said Stephenson.   

The California Capital Air Show lets its vendors handle it but Brewer said the show controls the price. “We keep the price for water just above the cost of delivery which keeps our fans happy,” she said. Free water is also available in the higher end chalets, the kids areas and in first aid tents. Brewer’s show also utilizes cooling tents where people can pass through a cooling mist to get some relief from the heat.   

Cooling tents are also set up at the Fargo Airsho; in spite of its northern latitude the temperatures do get warm, and Walstad says water is their biggest beverage seller. The misting tent is provided by a local hospital. It’s open at both ends and fans can simply walk through to cool down.   

Some of the logistics services required to produce a successful air show can be expensive but it pays off in the long run according to Colin Stephenson. “If we nickel and dime ourselves we will hurt our fans and it will ultimately end up costing us big time. Volunteers have their place and we can’t operate without them, but we would never hire an amateur to perform in front of our fans and we would never dream of putting inexperienced people in charge of key jobs behind the lines. Professionals know how to get the job done quickly and safely,” he said. 

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Mike Berriochoa
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.