Five graphs that chart the creeping cancellation of the 2021 airshow season

With over 30 airshow cancellations already official in 2021, we’ve been crunching the numbers to try and establish which shows have been cancelling first, where they are located, and why they have felt the need to pull the plug.

So far, the United States has had by far the highest number of cancellations, although this is to be expected given the United States has more airshows than any other country, and a relatively early start to the airshow season.

The United Kingdom has already seen two postponements from June to September, with more likely to follow. In a small country with a large number of airshows, emergency services, events companies, airshow professionals and vital resources such as fencing could be so thinly spread in the second half of the season that non-coronavirus cancellations follow.

A month-by-month analysis reveals some surprises. Despite the spring being a busy time for United States airshows, which currently face a pandemic which is raging out of control, April ties with June as the months with the most North American airshow cancellations. Even more surprisingly, only a single postponement is registered for the busy month of May, even as events in the safer months of August and September begin pulling the plug.

The pattern is much more predictable in Europe, where June – the first busy month of the airshow season – sees the bulk of the cancellations, and late-season shows continue to cling to a realistic chance of proceeding as planned.

Globally, it is military-run and trade-oriented airshows that have been the most likely to cancel so far this year. This is hardly surprising, as exposing active service members to large public crowds has obvious drawbacks. Military airshows in Europe also face additional complications, as they generally rely heavily on international contributions from neighbouring air forces, which may well be restricted.

Trade airshows have also been hard hit, with almost every trade show scheduled before July having been cancelled. This is because these events rely on very large volumes international visitors, and the relaxation of international travel restrictions cannot be guaranteed.

This is broadly in line with what we saw in 2020, when not a single trade airshow and just one military-run public airshow was held in western Europe and North America beyond April. The vast majority of airshows that went ahead were small, civilian airshows, with a small handful of larger events taking place in US states with particularly relaxed restrictions.

There does not seem to be a pattern to how early airshows are cancelled because of coronavirus, but the figures are interesting nonetheless. So far, some airshows have been cancelled up to a year early, while the shortest notice given is approximately six weeks. The majority of lost or delayed airshows have been cancelled or postponed with five months’ notice or more. Trade airshows have generally given the most notice of their cancellation, as these events require the most forward planning on the part of exhibitors and visitors.

European airshows have on average been cancelled much earlier than North American ones as it stands, but this is probably because the European airshow season starts later in the year and there hasn’t yet been a chance for last-minute cancellations. Expect these figures to change as the airshow season draws closer, as some last-minute cancellations are overwhelmingly likely.

Many cancelled airshows announced the reason for this decision in statements and social media posts, and an analysis of these is particularly revealing, with strongly differing reasons for event cancellations depending on their region.

North American airshows – particularly military-run airshows – usually cite the safety of visitors and service members as the primary reason for cancellation, but only one European airshow has done so. Four North American airshows also listed current or anticipated coronavirus regulations as a primary reason for cancellation, compared to only one in Europe. Meanwhile, most European airshow cancellations have been due to uncertainty regarding the overall path of the pandemic, which is only cited twice in the United States.

This probably reflects two key factors: firstly, in the United States, there is a far greater confidence that the pandemic is almost at an end (as, indeed, there has been since spring 2020), compared to a growing fear on the other side of the Atlantic that the disease could rage out of control for many months to come. Secondly, the figures reflect the fact that North American airshows have so far been cancelled later on average than European airshows. Most of the European 2021 airshow cancellations we’ve seen have been triggered by organisers who don’t want to risk organising an event that may later have to be cancelled, whereas in recent weeks we have seen a spate of North American cancellations from organisers who tried to hold on until the bitter end. Plenty of European airshow organisers are currently taking the same gamble, so expect the number of European cancellations due to health risks or virus restrictions to rise in April, May and June.

This aviation brinkmanship will likely be exacerbated on both sides of the Atlantic by an apparent lack of socially-distant event formats in 2021. Although last year saw a number of new airshow formats being successfully trialled, airshow organisers have seemed reluctant to adopt them (only a single large drive-in airshow has currently been confirmed in North America this year, for example – down from over half a dozen in 2020).

Filtering the same data based on the type of show, rather than the region, also produces interesting patterns. Military airshows have, on average, cited a greater vatiety of reasons for cancellation than civilian-run airshows, and are eight times more likely than civilian-run airshows to list health risks as a reason for cancellation. Across the board, uncertainty is the biggest cause of airshow cancellations across all categories.

In the short term, we’re overwhelmingly likely to see a huge increase in airshow cancellations in the United States, which is currently battling an unprecedented 3,500-4,000 coronavirus deaths per day. There are still at least seven airshows planned to go ahead in April, and around 20 in May, many of which are clearly unlikely to proceed. We’re also likely to see more early-season European airshows at the same time.

It is still possible – although unlikely – that the pandemic is broadly under control by early summer, in which case much of the airshow season could proceed as planned. Certainly, it is overwhelmingly likely that the experience gained in 2020 will allow for a busier airshow season than we were able to enjoy last year. Exactly how the coming months will pan out, however, is impossible to predict.

For more information about how airshow organisers are dealing with coronavirus, including alternative, socially-responsible event format options, read our special report here. For more information about how this data was compiled, see below.

List of cancelled/postponed airshows accurate as of 28/01/20. Events that take place in multiple months are listed with the month during which the show starts.
Regions covered: North America (USA, Canada & Mexico), Europe (EEA & UK only), Pacific (Australia & New Zealand only). Airshows outside of these regions are often low-profile and low in quantity, making meaningful data collection impossible.
Some airshows may fall into more than one category (for example, military-run trade shows).

Definition of airshow postponements: Airshows once advertised as taking place at a specified date in 2021, now due to take place at a later date in 2021.Airshows may record between zero and two primary reasons for cancellation, depending on statements released at the time.
Definition of airshow cancellations: Airshows once advertised as taking place in 2021, which are no longer due to take place this year. This includes airshows postponed to 2022 and beyond.
Events not included: Very small airshows; air displays held as part of other events which are not standalone airshows; airshows which, contrary to tradition or expectation, were never officially confirmed to be going ahead in 2021; airshows which were clearly cancelled or postponed for other reasons not related to coronavirus.