When it began in 1959, the Chicago Air and Water Show had a budget of $88.
Billed that year as “The Lakeshore Park Air & Water Show,” it featured a Coast Guard rescue demonstration, water-skiers, water ballet, and a diving competition, according to The Chicago Air and Water Show: A History of Wings Above the Waves, by Gerry and Janet Souter.
“They had rowing contests, a watermelon-eating contest, and there was a greased pole kids could climb,” Gerry Souter recalls, “and everyone had a pretty good time with a budget of $88.”
Today, the Chicago Air and Water Show has evolved into a multi-day mega-event, attracting annually more than 1.5 million spectators, including thousands from overseas, and a much bigger price tag. But as city budgets and the impact of climate change have come under greater scrutiny, some Chicagoans have written in with questions about the show.
Curious City listeners Leah and Mike, who didn’t want to use their last names, asked:
How much does the government (local and federal) spend on the Air and Water Show? And what is the carbon footprint of the Air and Water Show?
In digging up answers to these questions, we learned that the cost to taxpayers and the environment have fluctuated a lot over the decades, while the crowds have only grown.
What does the city of Chicago spend on the show?
Mary May, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, says the local price tag for the entire 2017 show was $742,189. According to May, this includes the cost of all 20 acts in the show and all the operational and production costs, like equipment, clean up, security, and lodging for all the performers. The 20 performance acts include not just military aircrafts but also civilian planes, historic aircrafts, an American Airlines 787, as well as a Chicago Fire Department air and sea rescue boat.
But Chicago taxpayers only foot part of the bill. According to May, in 2017, corporate sponsors paid 72 percent of the costs for the show, adding up to $532,100. That left taxpayers on the hook for $210,089.
But corporate sponsors haven’t always shouldered such a large share of the bill. In 1993, the show was losing $750,000 a year, according to First Son, a biography of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley by Keith Koeneman.
Koeneman writes the mayor was so mad that he nearly killed the show, run at the time by the Park District. But instead he decided to put someone else in charge. So he reached out to Jim “Skinny” Sheahan, who led the Mayor’s Office of Special Events (now called DCASE).
“The mayor asked me if I could run it without losing all the money and I told him I’d try,” Sheahan tells Curious City. “So we used our relationships with Chicago’s hospitality community and corporate sponsors to stop using so much taxpayer money for the show. Shell Oil, I think, gave $150,000 right off the bat. So the next year we basically broke even.”
These sponsorships, and their prominent branding, have remained an important part of the show’s financing ever since, says historian Gerry Souter. Today, the show is still sponsored by companies like Shell Oil Products, the Boeing Company, Bud Light, American Airlines, and Hyatt Regency McCormick Place.
What does the show cost the federal government?
Even if corporate sponsors pick up much of the local tab for the show, federal tax dollars are spent on the training and salaries of military performers, as well as equipment for these teams. These military performers, who take part in numerous air shows across the United States, have budgets that come out of the U.S. Department of Defense’s recruiting and community outreach divisions.
Souter says military recruitment has been an important part of the event ever since the Blue Angels debuted at the show in the mid ’60s. The period during the Vietnam War marked a rare lilt in that effort.
“But after that, in the 1990s with Desert Storm, the army moved in with a recruiting desk set up alongside Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Abrams tanks, and Patriot missiles,” Souter recalls. “And with all those military bits came more corporate sponsors because of all the excitement, and it drew more and more people.”
U.S. Army Golden Knights spokeswoman Donna Dixon says her group doesn’t have exact numbers on recruitment after shows but says, “They often get leads and access to schools that never let recruiters in before.” She calls them the “army’s elite recruiting tool.”
So how much do taxpayers actually pay to maintain these military teams?
It’s difficult to get an exact answer for the total cost, but we did come up with a few figures. Last year, the three big military performers in Chicago were the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy Leap Frogs, and the U.S. Army Golden Knights.
The Blue Angels total budget for 2017 was $37 million, according to the team’s spokesperson. The Leap Frogs say that the cost of putting on their 30 shows a year adds up to $780,000. Representatives for the Golden Knights, however, did not respond to requests for numbers.
In addition to these three military demonstration teams, Chicago’s show last year included six smaller military acts and one Coast Guard helicopter.
What are the environmental costs of the show?
While we were able to figure out the local costs and some of the federal costs, calculating carbon dioxide emissions, the damaging compound released by, among other things, cars and planes, is nearly impossible. First, the city says it doesn’t calculate them. Second, the technical details of some military aircraft are kept secret for security reasons. And third, the spokespeople for the three military demonstration groups did not respond to requests for even rough estimates of the carbon emissions per show.
We do know, however, that aircrafts can be particularly harmful to the environment because of the chemical reactions they trigger at high altitudes. According to the European Commission, aviation is “one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions.”
Still, air shows represent just a small part of the overall aviation-related carbon emissions in the U.S. each year. That may be why we couldn’t find a single environmental group that has zeroed in on air show emissions as a specific rallying issue.
A Canadian environmental consultancy called Blue Source did offer a small glimpse into air show carbon emissions when it calculated the emissions for a Canadian air show in 2013 in order to provide it with carbon offsets. (Carbon offsets are credits that can be purchased to help mitigate the effects of carbon emissions. For example, a company could pay money to plant trees somewhere.) The Canadian airshow had 10 aviation acts and the carbon offsets it purchased were worth 170 offsets (170 tonnes of CO2) for the emissions of its planes.
To put that in perspective, the average American has a carbon footprint of about 20 metric tons of CO2 a year.
A Blue Source representative says it would be impossible to calculate Chicago’s emissions without more details on the aircraft, including their speed, efficiency, distance, and fuel usage. But he noted that any calculation would also need to include the emissions involved in transporting the aircraft to the show and all the vehicles used by spectators to travel to and from the show.
Is the show worth it?
Whether the costs of the Air and Water Show are worth it depends on whom you ask.
The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events says that millions have spent the weekend “enjoying the free show with family and friends for six decades.” Additionally, the department notes that the show annually “contributes an approximated $78 million in total business activity to the Chicago economy.”
And for fans like Air Show historians Janet and Gerry Souter, the benefits are even wider.
“It provides entertainment for the city and it’s also educational,” Janet Souter says. “Recruitment aside, this is our military. This is what we have. This is what we’re about.”
“And there’s a lot of excitement,” Gerry Souter adds. “Because you’ve got all these stunt planes. You’ve got all of the parachutes. And there are a lot of civilian stunt shows. … Also the nice thing is it’s free — and just wide open for everyone from Navy Pier to North Avenue. It’s a show just for us in Chicago.”
But Curious Citizen Leah — who asked about the environmental impact — is not convinced.
“I don’t think the environmental price is worth it,” she says. “I mean weren’t we supposed to be a green city? I feel like there are other more awesome things about Chicago we could be celebrating that are not so bad for the environment. But [if they have to do it], maybe those corporations who give so much money to the show could think about paying for carbon offsets next time.”