Saturday, April 8, 2017

The little airport that's getting crushed by Trump

For most people who live in Palm Beach County, Florida, the stringent security that protects President Trump during his visits to Mar-a-Lago is a manageable inconvenience.

They brace for heavier traffic. They review detour routes. They leave early to make dinner reservations.

But one corner of the county takes Trump's frequent weekend trips far harder than the rest.

At Lantana Airport, a Trump visit isn't just a minor pain. It's a potentially budget-breaking event.

"When he's here, we can't fly," said Marian Smith, the owner of Palm Beach Flight Training, which operates at the airport. "We're totally grounded. We can't even use our offices here."

Lantana Airport is about six miles southwest of Trump's private club on the island of Palm Beach. That is within the 10-mile zone that is subject to the strictest flight rules imposed by the federal government when the president is in town.

According to protocol, no flight training of any kind is allowed at the airport while the president is in town. The rules also ban helicopter tours, airplane rentals and other charter flights.

Trump himself lands in Air Force One at nearby Palm Beach International Airport, which is far bigger and can absorb a presidential visit without much disruption.

But tiny Lantana essentially becomes a ghost town.

Mounting losses

The two dozen companies that operate at Lantana Airport have lost more than $720,000 since Trump began taking weekend visits while in office, according to data compiled by Representative Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents the Palm Beach area.

Flight schools like Smith's have lost at least $70,000 in total revenue, according to Frankel. Sightseeing businesses are out $30,000.

The regulations are also hitting aircraft maintenance and fuel supply shops like Stellar Aviation, which Frankel said lost a $440,000 contract when a helicopter company moved to another airport that isn't affected by the restrictions. Jonathan Miller, the CEO of Stellar Aviation, did not respond to requests for comment from CNNMoney.

Cathy Milhoan, a spokeswoman for the Secret Service, said the agency has met frequently with Palm Beach County business owners and government officials since the election.

"We've tried to be as accommodating as we possibly can while still maintaining our security protocols," Milhoan said. But she added that "there's no plans right now to adjust what's in place."

A "big imposition"

Palm Beach County Mayor Paulette Burdick said the county doesn't blame the Secret Service for doing its job. But she said the frequency of Trump's visits has been a concern.

"I anticipated that the president would come down to the Palm Beaches, where he has a winter residence," she said. "I did not expect that he would be down here nearly every weekend since his presidency."

Trump's Thursday trip to Mar-a-Lago with Chinese President Xi Jinping will be his sixth visit to Palm Beach since he took office in January. His past visits have all come on weekends in the middle of what officials say is their peak tourism season.

"It's a big imposition," said Smith, the owner of the flight training shop. She said she canceled 63 flights on President's Day weekend when Trump visited Palm Beach. She has invested in another office in Fort Lauderdale to accommodate some clients.

That decision brought its own challenges. The Fort Lauderdale office, which is a 40-minute drive south of Palm Beach County, costs an extra $1,000 per month, Smith said. She estimates she's lost more than $60,000 in revenue -- a sizable chunk of the $2 million she takes in every year.

The other problem, Smith said, is the short notice the airport receives. She said she generally finds out about Trump's visits only a couple of days before he comes down.

"We have no idea when he's coming here," she said. "We have no idea how much it's going to affect us."

Creating workarounds

Lantana Airport can still allow some aircraft, like private planes, to land on its field when the presidential restrictions are in effect.

But there are cumbersome rules: Those planes have to land first at another airport that has TSA agents and can carry out inspections. And a private jet can't take off from Lantana until the president leaves town.

Mike Simmons, a county airports official, said the county has even looked at installing a temporary control tower at Lantana in hopes of getting the government to relax its restrictions. Those plans haven't gone anywhere.

So the little airport is finding workarounds. Dan Crowe, the president of a helicopter flight training and charter service at the airport, said his flight training business has to continue because of contract obligations.

So when he finds out about a Trump visit, Crowe rents a van and hauling equipment to take his planes and customers about an hour west, to an airport that falls outside the restricted zone. Each trip costs him an extra $2,000.

But he can't reschedule other activities, like his charter flights. If a couple is coming to Palm Beach to get married and wants to schedule a scenic tour of the area, Crowe said they're well aware that the trip could be a gamble.

"They're not going to change the date they are getting married," Crowe said. "We always make them aware of this possibility, and again, sometimes we could be losing business because of it, because they may decide, well, 'I'm not even going to take that chance.'"

(Jill Disis - CNN Money)  

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