White House

Frustration is soaring at Palm Beach County airport as Trump hogs everybody's airspace

Trump hogs the skies

PALM BEACH, Fla.President Donald Trump is wreaking havoc on local businesses and wealthy aircraft owners who rely on the regional airports surrounding Mar-a-Lago, or what the president calls the "Southern White House."

Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping here beginning Thursday, creating what could be the longest air traffic shutdown around his resort ever. It's hoped that the two world leaders will use the opportunity to hash out their differences on several global topics, but the business owners and executives who use this air hub, known locally as Lantana Airport, are losing patience and money because of Trump's frequent visits.

They want to hash out their differences with the Secret Service.

When Trump visits, the Secret Service issues a Temporary Flight Restriction before his arrival. That essentially shuts down the airport for the duration of his stay.

This will be the seventh weekend Trump has stayed at Mar-a-Lago since his January inauguration. Aviation businesses run out of Lantana must come to a complete halt, planes are grounded and operations cease. The regional airport is 5 nautical miles south of Mar-a-Lago — which puts it right in the middle of the 10-mile no-fly ring.

Lantana Airport is about six miles southwest of Mar-a-Lago.
Source: Google Maps

Phil Valente, a millionaire trial attorney, rents a hangar at Lantana for a plane he shares with several friends. He said it costs him thousands of dollars extra to house his plane at a nearby facility outside of the no-fly zone. He's also paying double the price in fuel, and he said his business is suffering because his plane is grounded.

Standing inside his hangar by his sleek $2 million Piper Meridian M500, Valente said the shutdown couldn't be more of an inconvenience.

"We have to move the airplane over to North County Airport, pay for extra fuel. Go through the manipulations of getting yourself over there and somehow get back. And you have to do it with a lot of planning," he said. "It costs me a lot of time out of the office. There's no easy or simple way to do it. ... It's a big hassle."

Jonathan Miller, president of Stellar Aviation Group, sells fuel and rents hangars to aircraft owners like Valente. He says he's lost about $30,000 in net income each two-day weekend that Trump is at Mar-a-Lago. During this week's coming four-day visit, he said, he stands to lose as much as $55,000.

Miller said his business is seasonal and generates 60 percent of revenue on the weekends. And just last month, a helicopter training facility moved its operations from here to Alabama. That amounted to an annual loss of $440,000.

President Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump arrive on Air Force One at the Palm Beach International airport.
Getty Images

"Something has to be done," Miller said. "We can't go on like this."

Miller said he worked with Trump in the past when the real estate mogul would land in West Palm Beach for stays at Mar-a-Lago. Miller reached out to the president but is still waiting for an answer.

The Palm Beach Flight Training School has also taken a hit. Office manager Michelle Smith said the business, which is based at Lantana, is grounded when Trump is in town. She said that year to date, it has lost $67,000 in revenue.

In order to save the school, she has leased office space at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport to keep some of the weekend customers.

"They're frustrated. Most of them cancel their flights," she said. "It's hard when they want answers, and we can't give them any."

We either have to have some concessions from the federal government or some concessions from the Secret Service. It can't go on like this, especially for four or eight more years.
Jonathan Miller
president, Stellar Aviation Group

About 300 aircraft are based at Lantana. It employees 250 people full time, with a direct economic impact of almost $15 million and a total community impact of over $27 million annually, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

The association has asked the Secret Service for several concessions. The groups met a couple of weeks ago but have yet to reach an agreement. Dave Johnson, who works on behalf of the association, said he voted for Trump during the election. He said he still supports him, but no one expected the president to visit as often as he has. And he expressed disappointment with the Secret Service for not working with them on a fix.

A spokesperson for the Secret Service said the flight restrictions are temporary. She said the agency has worked "diligently" with the local community but does not expect to make changes yet.

The pilot's association has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to create a cutout to exclude Lantana from the no-fly zone and let air businesses operate without TSA screening. But several businesses at Lantana said they would be willing to undergo heightened security checks in order to fly.

Currently, TSA screeners are not required at the air hub because Lantana is a general aviation airport. This means it has no scheduled passenger or public charter service with more than 30 passengers.

Commercial flights at Palm Beach International Airport are not affected because they undergo more rigorous security screening.

'Two sides to every story'

Still, many businesses in Palm Beach welcome the exposure that comes along with the president's visits. The county had the highest hotel occupancy rate in the state in February, according to Discover The Palm Beaches, a local tourism organization. Jorge Pesquera, the group's president, said 7.2 million people visited the county last year, bringing in $7.3 billion in tourism.

In the long term, he said, he hopes the region will benefit.

"There's two sides to every story," Pesquera said. "Some of the hotels are very pleased that there is renewed interest, … others have been somewhat inconvenienced."

The pilots association remains hopeful that the Secret Service and the FAA will allow the regional airport to operate while the flight restrictions are in effect.

"We either have to have some concessions from the federal government or some concessions from the Secret Service," Miller said. "It can't go on like this, especially for four or eight more years."