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Palm Beach County aviation head: Trump flight limits will hurt airport

Aviators who use the Lantana airport, and businesses that operate at it, will pay dearly for new President Donald Trump’s vacations at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, county commissioners heard Tuesday.

But the county’s aviation chief said the final word in this case isn’t with the county, or even the nation’s commander in chief. It’s the Secret Service. And that agency isn’t budging.

Airports Director Bruce Pelly told a county commission workshop on Tuesday he plans to press the Secret Service and the federal Transportation Security Administration for “whatever we can do to get Lantana functioning.” But, he said, “They’re telling us what can and cannot happen.”

Commissioners voted 6-0 to have county staff formally ask the federal government to soften its restrictions and to have county people in Washington lobby for assistance as well.

“We’re going to try to do everything we can to mitigate the impact on the aviation community,” Pelly said. “These people are paying customers.”

He said he asked the federal agencies if they’d install a temporary control tower at Lantana, which would provide more scrutiny for private planes and could ease the strict limits. Pelly said the Secret Service wasn’t keen on the idea.

The federal government said severe air traffic restrictions will be in place when Trump is at what he calls his “winter White House:” Lantana, listed as one of the nation’s 10 busiest general aviation airports, effectively will shut down. And general aviation at a dozen airports from Martin County to Fort Lauderdale, including Palm Beach International, will be heavily restricted.

In a Dec. 15 letter to Trump, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association president and CEO Mark R. Baker said six South Florida airports directly affected “account for a local economic output exceeding $1 billion, create over 8,000 jobs, and have a total payroll of $290 million.” He said the pilots understand the need for security, but asked Trump to consider the impact.

“Obviously the security of the president is a priority concern for the Secret Service and the American people,” U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, whose district includes the Lantana airport, said in a statement late Tuesday. “With that said, I will make appropriate inquiries to the relevant agencies as to whether there is any accommodation that can be made to local businesses without endangering the well-being of the president and his family.”

Neither the White House nor the Secret Service responded Tuesday afternoon to requests for comment.

“There’s a little bit of hysteria,” Jonathan Miller, CEO of Stellar Aviation Group, the “fixed base” operator at the Lantana airport, told county commissioners Tuesday. He said the airport employs about 400 people and hosts some 300 planes.

“It’s not just our pocketbook that’s going to suffer,” Miller said. He said he and his tenants combined pay about $850,000 in rents to the county, plus taxes and fuel surcharges.

Miller noted numerous general aviation airports are near Washington, D.C., and urged commissioners to work with the feds “to explore every opportunity’ to soften the economic impact.

Pelly has told commissioners that one business, Palm Beach Aircraft Services, has estimated it will lose $2 million a year at Lantana. Another firm, Palm Beach Flight Training, told the county grounding of its Lantana operations during Trump visits could potentially force it out of business. And Windward Aviation, a maintenance firm at Lantana, says 90 percent of its customers use its Lantana site.

A big factor will be how often the rules will be in place.

“It’s a very difficult target,” Pelly said. “We don’t know how many times he’s going to come. We don’t know how long he’s going to stay.” But every year over the past two decades, Trump has spent the holidays at the complex.

This is frightening to say the least,” said new county commissioner Dave Kerner, whose district is in Lantana — and who said later he had his Bar Mitzvah at the airport.

“It’s not easy for us with our new president, in many areas,” said County Mayor Paulette Burdick, no fan of Trump. “But certainly in Palm Beach County the aviation industry is a significant business cluster. It’s a job generator.”

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