February 18, 2017
The Secret Service of the Skies
The New York Times

When you think of security around the president of the United States, you most likely think of Secret Service officers in sunglasses, talking into microphones hidden in their cuffs. You probably don’t think of the large bubble of restricted airspace that follows the president wherever he goes. These are essentially no-fly zones reaching up to 17,999 feet within a 30-nautical-mile radius of the president (a nautical mile is just over a regular mile). If you fly into that ring without permission from federal authorities, fighter jets will be on your wing before you can hum a few bars of “Hail to the Chief.”

This policy, in place since the Sept. 11 attacks, is causing more disruption than usual because President Trump has homes in some of the busiest airspace for general aviation in the country — metropolitan New York and South Florida. The first lady still lives in New York, and President Trump is scheduled to spend his third weekend in a row at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, which he and his aides have taken to calling his “Winter White House.”

Major commercial airliners and cargo carriers, such as Delta and FedEx, are unaffected by these temporary flight restrictions, or “TFRs” in aviation speak, because they undergo careful security screening whenever they fly. But general aviation — private and corporate flights, flight instruction, sightseeing tours, aerial photography, pipeline and utility inspections, surveying, weather and pollution monitoring, crop-dusting, banner-towing and more — has to cease or curtail operations. Aviation businesses in New York and Florida say they are facing significant, if not ruinous, losses.

According to the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which represents charter, medevac, news-gathering and sightseeing operators, 100,000 helicopter flights go in and out of New York City’s four heliports each year, while around 200,000 helicopters and small airplanes transit the scenic Hudson River corridor. “It’s like an Interstate,” said Jeff Smith, vice president of operations for the council.

With a few exceptions, like for law enforcement and medical emergencies, aircraft are now prohibited within a one-nautical-mile radius of Trump Tower in New York. That ring is expected to expand to a 10-nautical-mile radius — covering almost all of Manhattan — when the president is in town. Flights to and from airports within 20 to 30 nautical miles may continue, but only if the pilots file a fight plan, transmit a discrete radio signal (known as a transponder code) and remain in constant communication with air traffic controllers. If President Trump visits New York frequently or on short notice, “the economic impact of these restrictions would be tremendous,” said Rune Duke, the director of government affairs at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

The pain is already being felt by those used to flying around Mar-a-Lago. The region has a robust general aviation community, in part because of the pleasant weather. It has become a hub of flight training at a time when there is a worldwide pilot shortage. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the six South Florida airports affected by the presidential airspace restrictions “account for a local economic output exceeding $1 billion, create over 8,000 jobs and have a total payroll of $290 million.”

Now, not so much. Palm Beach County Park Airport, known locally as Lantana Airport, is around six miles from Mar-a-Lago, so no departures are allowed during presidential visits. “We’re basically on lockdown when he’s here,” said Jonathan Miller, the airport’s fixed base operator.

Fixed base operators sell fuel, rent hangar space, manage aircraft parking and handle arrangements for visiting crew and passengers. “You can’t even run an engine for maintenance,” he said, which harms his mechanic and paint shop tenants. “We understand the president needs to be protected, but this is going to put us out of business.”

Lantana’s Palm Beach Flight Training school has had to suspend training and cancel tens of thousands of dollars in flights. The owner, Marian Smith, said she feared she would lose contracts from local colleges, endangering the employment of her 19 instructors and the business she started in 1998. She said it was as if a cloud had descended over the airport, similar to when it was discovered that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, had rented an airplane there.

Dave Kerner, a Palm Beach County commissioner who trained to get his pilot’s license at Lantana and had his bar mitzvah in one of the hangars, said: “I’d love to talk to President Trump on the tarmac and show him what’s going on. It’s a level of devastation for my constituents that is kind of frightening.”

And then there’s Palm Beach International Airport, less than 2.1 nautical miles from Mar-a-Lago, which owes 60 percent of its traffic to general aviation. When the president is in residence, all inbound flights must first detour to one of five so-called gateway airports, including Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and Orlando International Airport in Florida, where aircraft can undergo the security screening necessary to get clearance to fly on to Palm Beach.

Doug Carr, a security expert at the National Business Aviation Association, said the steep drop in traffic at Palm Beach International during the president’s recent visits indicates the planes’ operators have decided to avoid the area altogether rather than deal with the hassle and expense of diverting off course and having their aircraft, crew and passengers intrusively searched and vetted.

Those affected include not only wealthy private jet owners who have homes and business interests in the Palm Beach area, like Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates, but also small-business owners and their employees. Companies that handle the cleaning, catering and maintenance for these aircraft are hurting, while flights for every purpose from sky-diving to wildlife monitoring are now either forbidden or require going through an onerous, and often fruitless, approval process.

South Florida officials have met with the Secret Service and the F.A.A. seeking ways to mitigate the damage, like creating a narrow flyway in and out of the airspace so that Lantana Airport can resume some degree of function. But Commissioner Kerner said that the Secret Service has been “resolute in its restrictions.”

President Trump is unlikely to intervene. For more than two decades he repeatedly sued Palm Beach County over air traffic noise, at one point accusing the local airports director of “intentional battery” by maliciously directing jets to fly over Mar-a-Lago. Lawyers for the county responded that they couldn’t help it that the estate is just off the end of the airport’s main east-west runway.

Now, when the president visits, airplanes will be required to turn almost immediately after takeoff and fan out and away from the estate, in line with what was demanded in the lawsuits. Requests for comment from the White House went unanswered. But then, getting an answer was about as likely as getting clearance to fly Lazy 8’s in the president’s airspace.

For the original article, click here.

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