by Tony Palmeri
December 30, 2001
When I first started teaching at UW Oshkosh in September of 1989, a faculty member told me I should plan to take my summer vacation in late July because "the Experimental Aircraft Association brings close to a million people to town during that time of year." I found it surprising that a city the size of Oshkosh could handle that many people without suffering major disruptions, but year after year the local newspaper and other EAA boosters would report "record attendance" of 700,000 individuals or more. By the mid 1990s it was explained to me by some local friends that the attendance numbers were grossly inflated and based on number of event passes sold (i.e if someone bought 4 passes they counted 4 times toward the attendance figure), so that actual EAA attendance in peak years has probably been about 150,000 maximum.
The EAA has been in Oshkosh for decades, yet the local Oshkosh Northwestern never exposed the inflated attendance numbers until July 31, 2001. On that day, buried in the middle of reporter Jim Collar's story about AirVenture 2001 we saw the following:
"[EAA President Tom] Poberezny estimated attendance at 750,000 people, a 2% drop from last year's 765,000 attendance mark . . . Estimated attendance reflects the number of passes sold. Someone who bought a seven day pass, for instance, was counted toward attendance 7 times . . . The number of individual visitors who came to the event was not available."
Actually, the number of individual visitors can be determined by looking at some numbers reported in an Oshkosh Northwestern story of July 23, 1994 ("EAA brings $$$ here"). The story reported on a survey taken by the UW-Extension, which found that EAA visitor total spending in Wisconsin was $81,365,810, that the average daily expenditure in Wisconsin per person was $162.53 and that the average individual spent 3 and 1/2 days at the convention. The reporter made no attempt to figure out how many individuals were represented in these figures, but some simple calculations reveal it to be about 143,000. Note that 1994 was one of the peak years for attendance at EAA; I would seriously doubt if the attendance has ever been higher than 150,000--a good number of people but not even close to the inflated number we have been fed for years.
Unfortunately, Collar's July 31 report did not represent an intention by the Northwestern to be more honest in its future reporting about EAA attendance. On November 17 of 2001, reporter Alex Hummel's story about EAA's post 9/11 uncertainties says this: "The convention has drawn more than 820,000 attendees in its biggest years." The EAA on its website continues to describe the convention as "An annual week long gathering that attracts 765,000 aviation enthusiasts."
The inflation of EAA attendance figures by the local media, by the Chamber of Commerce, and by the EAA itself is not a trivial matter. When an overwhelming majority of the 38 Winnebago County Supervisors decided a few years ago to use tax dollars to build an ill-advised race track, they were persuaded mostly by what turned out to be exaggerated claims of possible attendance. How many times over the last 30 years have county supervisors voted to support pro-EAA legislation on the basis of inflated attendance claims?
The year 2002 will mark the EAA's 50th anniversary. Let's hope they and their local boosters mark the event by providing us with some accurate attendance data for a change. For the level of support EAA gets from Winnebago County, isn't that the least we can expect?
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