Traverse City News and Events

Officials Talk Future of Cherry Fest Air Shows Amid Growing Airport Traffic

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 8, 2024

Growing passenger traffic at Cherry Capital Airport could require changes in the coming years to the National Cherry Festival air show, which grounds commercial flights during a peak summer week whenever high-performance aircraft like the U.S. Navy Blue Angels are in the air. Airport and festival officials both support keeping the air show as a beloved community tradition, but recognize the need to minimize disruptions to commercial flights to avoid airlines moving their summer business elsewhere. A variety of options are on the table, according to Airport CEO Kevin Klein, including tightening air show practice and performance windows, exploring night shows, featuring alternate technology like drones, and moving the center point of the air show further away from Grand Traverse Bay and the airport.

Grand Traverse County commissioners discussed the air show at their Wednesday meeting. County Commissioner and Northwest Regional Airport Authority board member Darryl Nelson told commissioners that TVC accounted for nearly one-third of Michigan’s total passenger growth last year. Cherry Capital Airport experienced a record year in 2023 for passenger traffic, hitting 700,699 total passenger movements.

However, that growth comes with at least one significant challenge: conflicts in air traffic during the National Cherry Festival. During the air show – scheduled to take place June 29 and 30 this year from 1pm to 4pm, with the Blue Angels taking flight at approximately 3pm – all commercial flights are grounded whenever high-performance aircraft are in the air. That includes the Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, when they’re in town, but other types of aircraft can also trigger the stoppage. When those aircraft are performing, federal rules require a five-nautical-mile radius of restricted airspace around the center point of the air show – which takes place over Grand Traverse Bay. Cherry Capital Airport must halt flights not only during portions of both air shows, but also earlier in the week when aircraft are practicing.

The Cherry Festival obtains a permit from the airport to hold the air show every year, which allows for ongoing discussions about the event. Klein says multiple factors necessitate taking a closer look this year – and developing a longer-term collaborative strategy for the future. For one, the airport’s growth makes it increasingly more difficult to delay or move flights around. “Ten years ago, we had three airlines and five destinations,” Klein explains. “Now we have five airlines and 18 destinations. We have 30 planes impacted now, where it was three or four a decade ago.”

Smaller planes were also the order of the day in the past, with passengers often able to be combined into one larger passenger flight to work around air show impacts. Now, most airlines are already using larger aircraft and can’t combine flights, Klein says. The concern is that when airlines start to accumulate delayed or cancelled flights – or have passengers stuck waiting on the tarmac, as has occurred during some air show practices – they could ultimately consider moving their flights elsewhere.

“When you look at air service today and how airports and airlines interact, the goal is to make sure there’s seamless service,” Klein says. “In the every-day world with weather and other things cancelling flights, there’s a lot we can’t control. But an air show is something we can control.” If airlines are facing multiple days of disrupted service during a peak summer revenue window due to an optional entertainment event, they could redirect those planes somewhere else for the summer, Klein says. “We don’t want to lose our edge for competition in adding more cities by causing our own pain,” he adds. “We want to make sure those airlines aren’t impacted so that they don’t even consider that as a choice.”

There are several options for addressing those concerns, which festival and airport officials plan to explore together in the coming weeks and present as recommendations to Northwest Regional Airport Authority board members at their March 12 meeting. For this year, Klein expects the air show to look like business as usual to festivalgoers. “We’re not cancelling the Blue Angels,” he stresses. “We’re just trying to find a balance that minimizes impacts.” That could include eliminating other high-performance aircraft during at least the 1pm to 3pm window of the air show so that commercial flights can take place during that time (the radius doesn’t apply to slower-moving aircraft in the show). Officials could also look at moving the three-hour practice for the Blue Angels that takes place earlier in the week to a different time of day to minimize airport disruptions that day.

In the long term, other alternatives could be explored. The Thunderbirds have a scheduling conflict and can’t perform at the Cherry Festival next year, Klein says, which offers an opportunity to have a low-impact year similar to the “air shows of the past” and review options for the future. “The whole book is open, whether it’s a general aviation show focused on low-performance aircraft, or a drone show, or a nighttime airshow,” he says. “It could even be a static air show” – think the open ramp event that happens at the Coast Guard Air Station that lets festivalgoers get up-close-and-personal with aircraft and performers – that could take place over several days instead of just a few hours, Klein says.

Another consideration is moving the center point of the air show away from Grand Traverse Bay, which would put Cherry Capital Airport outside the restricted airspace radius and allow flights to continue. The issue isn’t where the Blue Angels and other aircraft take off, Klein explains – it’s not as simple as just having them take off from Gaylord, for example – but where they actually perform. Moving the location of that performance zone could alter the air show experience – it might not be the “close-up” maneuvers people are used to over the bay, but could allow for a longer-lens, more “panoramic” view of the aircraft performing, Klein says. Moving the performance zone would first require a federal air space study, so that option is longer-term – though it has been done successfully in other communities, such as Fort Lauderdale, Klein says.

Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye says the festival and airport have long been collaborators and are committed to working together on solutions. She points out that at least some of the busy commercial traffic over the Fourth of July week at Cherry Capital Airport is due to the festival itself. “So we certainly don’t want to impede (passengers’) ability to get here,” she says. “We recognize that commercial traffic has grown, and we want to work in increased coordination to help with that.”

Traverse City is a unique community for air shows in part because of its performances over the water. “It’s a very different look than I think other shows in the country,” Paye says. Changing that could have both logistical and experiential impacts, which would need to be carefully explored, she says. Paye says the festival already works now on trying to coordinate ahead of time on schedules so there aren’t day-of surprises for the airlines and airport. “Those are prearranged to the best of our ability,” she notes. Ultimately, Paye says the festival’s goal is to “continue to have the air show we’ve had for decades, while still understanding and trying to minimize the impact on commercial traffic.”

Photo credit: U.S. Navy/Jasmine Suarez

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