For Mike Creato of Classic Aviators this is a crunch year and, while other business owners are jumping up and down about next month’s visit by President Obama, he’s fretting over the possibility that the First Family’s Island vacation will ruin his fragile biplane tours enterprise at Katama Airfield.
Because Mr. Obama will be the first sitting president to visit Martha’s Vineyard since 9/11, pilots are predicting increased security restrictions on airspace over and around the Vineyard. No details on flight restrictions around the Vineyard for the last week in August have yet been announced by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Flight restrictions may be particularly severe for Martha’s Vineyard air traffic, the majority of which is made up of light aircraft.
Restrictions vary widely; they can require the pilot to submit flight plans to obtain permission for every flight in the form of a waiver from the transportation security administration (TSA), and can prohibit the use of planes for instruction, tourism and air travel not governed by instruments.
The old Katama Airfield supports visual flight rules only. Bad weather, requiring flight plans and instrument flying rules, effectively causes the closure of the airport.
When former President Clinton visited the Island, flight restrictions were imposed, said Mr. Creato, but they were not prohibitive.
“You could fly around them,” he said. “Post 9/11 it’s different.”
Mr. Creato, who also manages the Katama airstrip, expects the temporary flight restriction (TFR)to entail a closure of the airport for the duration of the Obama visit.
“Everybody is pretty sure it’s going to happen,” he said.
The restrictions could be disastrous for Classic Aviators, he added.
“We have an eight-week summer, if we’re lucky, and we’ll lose a couple of days of that to weather. To lose 10 days in August, it’s a 15 to 20 per cent shot we’re not going to get in gross revenue,” he said.
Mr. Creato said the biplane business, which offers a range of sightseeing tours of the Island, grosses $200,000 to $220,000 during its three-month opening season. The business failed to turn a profit for several years, and Mr. Creato said those working in the business do not take pay, aside from for time spent in the air.
“It’s a labor of love,” he said, “particularly in this economy. Will it mean the end? It’s hard to say. Will it contribute? Absolutely.”
For the purposes of transporting the President and the First Family, the worlds of aviation and national security collide in a blizzard of regulations and three letter acronyms.
A temporary flight restriction (TFR) can be imposed on airspace for a range of security reasons, from a hijacking to the transport of hazardous material.
Imposed by the FAA, which has sole responsibility for the governing of U.S. airspace, all TFRs restrict certain travel within given zones. Restrictions are imposed around the travel of the President, along with several other figures of national security importance, referred to only as a very important person (VIP).
Several TFRs were imposed in the New York area last week due to visiting VIPs. Airports including LaGuardia, JFK and Colts Neck in Homdel, N.J., faced restrictions on an inner core airspace of between seven and 30 nautical miles.
All three TFRs prohibited flights under 18,000 feet.
The Homdel restriction prohibited activity, including practice instrument approaches, aerobatic flights, glider operations, parachute operations and crop dusting.
Martha’s Vineyard Airport manager Sean Flynn refused to speculate about tighter restrictions at the Vineyard for the First Family visit, but noted that TFRs imposed elsewhere in America have been increasing. “Some of the recent TFRs have been pretty robust,” he said.
The restrictions contrast sharply with those imposed on the Vineyard during the Clinton era, said Mr. Flynn.
“The older TFRs had much less surface area,” he said.
Flight restrictions have increased with each president since Ronald Reagan, he added.
During the first Clinton presidential visit in 1993, a TFR was placed around the Clinton family residence in Edgartown, to the south of the airport.
The airport itself was closed for the time that the President was physically on the property.
During subsequent visits the airport was closed to traffic only when the President was aboard Air Force One in the vicinity.
Mr. Flynn remembers an altitude restriction of around 2,000 feet for both airport and residence.
“Which meant you could fly over it at some point,” he said.
Mr. Flynn mapped out a 30-mile TFR for the Vineyard and saw that it would cover the Island and beyond.
“It spreads out cone-like and would take you to Hyannis. You’d almost hit New Bedford and you’d almost hit Nantucket airport [before such a restriction would phase out],” he said.
A spokeswoman for the FAA yesterday declined to speculate about the Vineyard TFR or discuss the President’s movements.
“The requests [for TFRs] come from the agency in charge of security for the event, be it Homeland Security or the Secret Service,” she said. “They tell us their needs and it’s a collaborative effort; it’s dynamic and we look at particular events. I can’t say there’ll be no [general aviation] traffic. We do what we can and still manage the airspace system.”
TFRs are not typically announced until a day or two before they go into effect.
Nevertheless airport facilities managers for the past week at least have been expecting some word of the Vineyard restrictions during the presidential visit.
“We’re trying to wait and see what the TFR is before we comment,” said Mr. Flynn. “We’ve been expecting it for the past 10 days. It’s a case of hurry up and wait.”
During the summer months, roughly 70 per cent of the traffic is general aviation (noncommercial) aircraft which is potentially particularly vulnerable to the restrictions.
A busy day in August last year saw 95 Cape Air flights, five US Air flights and 365 other operations at Martha’s Vineyard Airport.
“We know it’s going to have an effect; we have to mitigate those effects,” Mr. Flynn said. “People are booking flights long in advance, so we want to get the word out.”
The anticipated flight restrictions and a broader discussion of increased security restrictions on private planes post-9/11 formed the backdrop for a meeting of private pilots and members of the airport commission at a general aviation event held at Martha’s Vineyard Airport on Saturday.
Former Republican Cong. James Coyne, now a Martha’s Vineyard resident and president of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), led the meeting, along with Craig Fuller, president and chief executive officer of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).
Mr. Coyne pointed to stringent restrictions imposed on Crawford, Tex., the vacation destination of former President George W. Bush, adding that what may have worked for Crawford may be disastrous for the Vineyard.
“I’ve been to both places and if I could pick a place on the planet that didn’t depend on [general aviation] for its existence, it might well be Crawford. But I can’t think of a place farther towards that end than Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. Mr. Coyne later criticized the security restrictions imposed by agencies such as the TSA on light aircraft.
“We’re spending billions of dollars chasing the boogie man that is security,” he said. “There’s no evidence that the threat is there. We’re not going to fly into buildings. I can’t think of a more secure, patriotic group of Americans [than private pilots]. . . . They’re beginning to call it regulation by imagination.
“They’ve created a permanent security regime. Who here thinks they’ll live to see code green? I remember code green perfectly well. I’ll tell my grandchildren about it.” Concluding the meeting, Mr. Coyne couched his remarks with a note of support for the President.
“Obviously, it’s clear everyone on Martha’s Vineyard wants to welcome Mr. Obama as much as possible,” he said.