USAF Thunderbirds perform during at Atlantic City Air Show Thunder over The Boardwalk in Atlantic City Wednesday, Aug 17, 2011.

Edward Lea

Crowd estimates for the annual Atlantic City Airshow have increased by at least 300 percent since the modern airshow returned in 2003.

As the show approaches its 10th anniversary — marking the first time it has ever been held on a Friday rather than its traditional midweek date — organizers have suggested that the show will bring record-breaking crowds to the city. Perhaps as many as 1 million people will watch this year’s airshow, up from last year’s crowd estimate of 800,000, they have said.

But as estimates have climbed, the massive numbers reported have drawn scoffs from some who have questioned whether the recent approximations are even possible.

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“Based on the limited capacity of the highways onto Absecon Island, the number of available parking spaces, the number of hotel rooms and the number of residents plus guests in homes on the island, it is — frankly — statistically impossible that at last year’s airshow there were 800,000 spectators, many of whom came on to the island in the morning and left the same day without causing immense traffic jams,” said Anthony Marino, a consulting analyst with the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Organizers say the crowd estimates are not intended as a count of people in Atlantic City watching the show. Rather, the counts reflect all spectators on Absecon Island — in Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and even stretching into Longport. Spectators in Brigantine are counted as well at the show, which is centered at Florida Avenue in Atlantic City.

The South Jersey Transportation Authority measures traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway. Last year, on the day of the airshow, 23,308 vehicles passed through the Pleasantville toll plaza eastbound between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., a 43 percent increase over an average Wednesday, said SJTA spokesman Kevin Rehmann. If there were four people in each vehicle, that would total more than 93,000 people coming through the Expressway on the day of the show.

SJTA had previously reported traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway last year totaled more than 185,000 vehicles. That number is correct, but it takes into account traffic in both directions. A vehicle is counted each time it passes a toll plaza, so many cars traveling in and out of Atlantic City on the same day could be counted four times as they pass through the Pleasantville and Egg Harbor Township toll plazas.

“Looking at the eastbound traffic at Pleasantville is truly a more accurate barometer of traffic that day,” said Rehmann ,who would not comment on the overall crowd estimates because the SJTA does not compile those numbers.

Joe Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, which coordinates the airshow, said the estimates are reported based on crowd counts from police and other emergency personnel in each of the municipalities. Those numbers are then reconciled with overhead crowd estimates provided by performers such as the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team.

“We’re basically looking at the entire beach area. I think that’s a fair estimate,” Kelly said. “The smartest thing we ever did was put the show on over the ocean and make it free to everyone. People are watching everywhere.”

Despite the fact that the loud announcers introducing the acts flying overhead can’t be heard outside city limits, some spectators do choose to watch from quieter locations in surrounding towns. For the first time, Ventnor scheduled several bands and a ninja-style demonstration on the day of the airshow to fill the time between flights.

It’s fair to assume some people outside Atlantic City are watching the show, but organizers can’t assume that’s true of everyone on the beach that day, said Richard Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College. The center last completed an economic impact analysis of the show in 2008 and has been asked by the Chamber of Commerce to update the study following this year’s show. The chamber uses that study to get sponsors for the show and sell advertising.

In 2008, organizers reported a crowd of 600,000, but Perniciaro’s report estimated that about 180,000 of those people were in the region specifically for the airshow.

That number was arrived at by taking 47.3 percent of the crowd and then subtracting about 104,000 — the average number of visitors in the region on a typical Wednesday in August. The 47.3 percent figure comes from the International Council of Airshows, which has found that is the percentage of attendees at an airshow not from the local region.

“There’s a difference between how many people are watching the airshow and how many people are in town because of the airshow. Because there are so many people here on a given Friday, you can’t count them as an economic impact because they’d be here anyway spending money,” Perniciaro said.

Even if the crowd was estimated at only 180,000, that would still make Atlantic City’s show the second largest on the East Coast, Perniciaro said. The Jones Beach Air Show in Long Island, N.Y., draws about 300,000 people within the limits of Jones Beach State Park.

“Any way you look at it, the show is successful,” Perniciaro said. “But a busy day on the beach is a busy day on the beach. To have 800,000 people between Brigantine and Margate, it’s a little difficult to understand. You ask where they would all be.”

Significant backups are already present on the expressway on the day of the airshow, drawing into question just how many more people could be brought into the city on a single day.

Last year on the day of the airshow, the expressway’s busiest hour at the Pleasantville toll plaza was 9 a.m. In the hour from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., 4,176 vehicles passed through the plaza going eastbound. That represents 93 percent of the hourly capacity for the plaza, which could theoretically handle about 4,500 vehicles going eastbound each hour, Rehmann said.

Traffic on the expressway normally accounts for about 50 percent of the total traffic across the three main roadways into Atlantic City, said Marino, also a retired South Jersey Transportation Authority analyst who compiled the city’s tourism statistics for 25 years. The Black Horse Pike and the White Horse Pike are the other two roads, and Marino believes locals would be more likely to use those roads on the day of the airshow to avoid crowds.

The Atlantic City Airshow was resurrected in 2003 after shows were held at the Atlantic City International Airport in the 1970s and 1990s. The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa hosted the 2003 show, which drew an estimated crowd of 150,000 to 200,000. By 2006, organizers reported 600,000 people, and in 2009 the estimate grew to 750,000.

Weather has contributed to crowd fluctuations, which have decreased in years when the show was held in less than desirable conditions.

Marino said there’s no doubt that the show is successful and draws huge crowds, but warned that any inflation to crowd estimates could become problematic.

“Allowing crowd estimates that are not based on reality to become public facts just because they are constantly repeated unchallenged in the media demeans careful analysis of this event and could mislead future historians,” he said.

Kelly said there’s nothing misleading about the numbers estimates. He noted that he would like to get a more precise count with aerial photographs taken across the length of island, but so far that hasn’t been done because of cost.

“These are just estimates. I’m going for a great show with a whole lot of people watching. That’s all we hope for,” Kelly said when asked about the possibility of 1 million people that’s been used. “The attention to detail and the time we spend to get it right, I think a lot of people wouldn’t be aware of what goes into the show to make it a success.”

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