“Back in the Saddle” was the theme for the recent Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) Trade Show & Convention held this week in Dallas. And indeed that was what it felt like, probably not just for me but the 1,500 or so people who attended. The event was held at the Hilton Anatole, which has facilities ideally suited to a relatively small show.
This was the first in-person event I’ve attended since the coronavirus pandemic began. My last big event was the Singapore Airshow in February 2020, and if I knew then what I know now, I would have been wearing masks much sooner and on that trip. I’m embarrassed to admit that at the time I pooh-poohed those who were smart enough to wear masks, including a doctor (major clue!) sitting next to me on one of my flights. The Singapore show was, understandably, sparsely attended.
By contrast, now that vaccination rates have climbed, especially among the demographic typical of the general aviation industry (i.e. older people like me), holding an in-person event without masking and social distancing does not seem to be a problem. The only people wearing masks that I saw during the event were the hotel workers at the Anatole and at my hotel. I will admit to hearing a little voice inside my head—while standing fairly close to friends at the show, hugging people for the first time in almost a year and a half, and shaking multitudes of hands—saying “I sure hope this vaccine works!”
But I must say it was a pleasure to see people and not having to try to figure out who they are and understand what they are saying through a mask and at a distance. A long-awaited big sigh of relief was palpable on the exhibit floor, and it was clear that either vaccination rates are high among this crowd or perhaps some have just decided to throw caution, along with their masks, to the wind.
The biggest change we all noticed was the lack of staff at the hotel. At one point I needed to find someone to ask about Wi-Fi access in the ballroom during the new product introduction session, one of my favorite parts of the AEA show. I ended up walking the entire length of the facility without encountering one employee who was available. There were lines at the front desk, no one at the concierge desk, and whenever I tried to wait in line to talk to someone, it seemed like the people in front of me were having enormously complicated problems that would take forever to solve. Finally, I just gave up on tweeting out the new product introductions and went with the flow.
And it was a pleasant flow indeed. I truly enjoyed saying hello to old friends and making new ones. People I never thought would be the hugging type were embracing me with bear-like passion. No matter where I went, people were eager to talk, and some booth visits turned into an hour’s worth of catching up. I needed the whole two days the exhibits were open to see all the companies I hoped to visit, but I’m sure I missed others.
Perhaps mirroring what’s going on in the hotel industry, everyone I spoke with at the AEA show raised concerns about shortages of personnel, not just technicians but engineers, managers, salespeople, etc. All agreed that the aviation industry, understandably battered by the pandemic, shrank itself too much and didn’t do a good job of planning for regrowth, although some companies did better than others in that regard. But to grow and take advantage of new opportunities, a lot of work needs to be done to attract new entrants and make working for these companies well worthwhile.
Just before the new product introductions, keynote speaker Gene Marks reminded the small business people in the audience of the importance of keeping employees happy, even suggesting radical ideas like unlimited paid time off, which is growing in popularity.
On an encouraging note, I encountered a lot of young people at the show who bring a dazzling array of talents to the aviation industry. The level of interest is high, and we seem to be able to attract diverse and diligent people who want to build a fruitful career in aviation.
Meanwhile, I’m already getting ready for my next in-person show and hope to see you there.