impacting the area’s heavily traveled airspace.
Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
When situations are normal, the two-hour Angel Flight that pilot Kelly Gottlieb flies to Gainesville a few times a year with a passenger who needs special medical treatment is fairly routine.
These days, however, normal has been redefined for pilots like Gottlieb who fly out of Palm Beach County Park Airport at Lantana, thanks to temporary flight restrictions activated every time President Donald Trump is in town.
Now, Gottlieb says the certainty of the free flight she’s planning for a woman later this month is, well, up in the air because the airport for all intents and purposes is shut down during the president’s weekend visits to his “winter White House” at Mar-a-Lago. She won’t know if that’s going to happen until airspace restrictions are announced just a few days prior to Air Force One’s arrival.
air transportation to patients who need special medical treatment.
Rich Pollack/The Coastal Star
A former mayor of Manalapan, Gottlieb says unless her passenger changes her early Monday morning appointment to the middle of the week, the Lake Worth woman would either have to take a nine-hour bus ride to Gainesville or find a pilot at the last minute who could fly her out of Boca Raton Airport — which isn’t directly affected by the weekend restrictions.
The president’s visits — he made five in his first eight weeks in office — and the headaches they’re causing for those flying noncommercial aircraft in and out of Palm Beach County are helping to shine a spotlight on general — or privately owned — aviation in South Florida. It’s considered one of the busiest regions in the country for this kind of air traffic.
“This area is connected to the entire state and nation,” says Clara Bennett, executive director of Boca Raton Airport. “Because of the density of the airspace and the diverse mix of activity here, the presidential visits are having a significant impact on a large amount of aviation. The impact here is greater than it would be in other places because there is so much more activity.”
How much activity is here?
In 2016, according to Federal Aviation Administration numbers, there were close to 500,000 general aviation takeoffs and landings at Palm Beach County’s five public airports. That includes traffic generated by corporate planes and jets, cargo planes, flight schools, commuter flights, air taxis, charters and small recreational or pleasure flights.
In Palm Beach County, four of the five airports are operated by the county’s department of airports — Palm Beach International Airport, Palm Beach County Park Airport in Lantana, North Palm Beach County General Aviation Airport in Palm Beach Gardens and the Palm Beach County Glades Airport in Pahokee.
Boca Raton Airport is operated by an independent airport authority, with some members appointed by the Boca Raton City Council and others appointed by the Palm Beach County Commission.
Numbers of annual operations — the takeoffs and landings — vary depending on the reports being used, but those in the know say South Florida ranks among the 10 busiest areas in the country for general aviation.
Palm Beach International Airport, which was ranked in 2016 as the 89th-busiest major airport in the country overall by the FAA out of more than 525 airports, is consistently among the five busiest airports in the country in terms of general aviation, according to Mike Simmons, one of the county’s deputy airport directors.
And officials at the Lantana airport, which averages about 250 flights a day when the president isn’t here, say it is consistently among the 10 busiest general aviation airports in the country. That’s possible in part because of the large number of flight school operations there.
With all the air traffic, at times planes are lined up for takeoff at Boca Raton Airport and times when incoming planes have to slow down to get their turn to land in Lantana. But pilots who fly out of Lantana say that’s not really a problem.
“The same way congestion impacts roads and waterways, there’s also congestion in the sky,” Boca Raton’s Bennett says. “The activity is a reflection of the demand.”
There are several reasons why general aviation demand is over the top in South Florida, with good weather most of the year being one of the biggest.
“Flying in South Florida is optimal because of the weather,” says Gottlieb, who has been flying for close to 40 years and is one of several pilots who volunteer flight time for people with special medical needs.
The good weather also makes South Florida an easy place to operate flight schools, and you’ll find at least one at each of the airports. Lantana airport — known for its flight training — is also home to Palm Beach Helicopters, a helicopter flight training academy.
“Nobody realizes all that goes on at this little airport,” Gottlieb said.
The strong South Florida business climate is another factor in the high volume of air traffic. There is a connection between South Florida and the Northeast, especially the New York metropolitan area, with many companies having corporate jets making trips back and forth.
Palm Beach County’s proximity to vacation areas such as the Bahamas and the Florida Keys also brings a lot of air traffic into the area. Several companies fly cargo to the islands and relief supplies to nations in the Caribbean.
Another factor contributing to the amount of air traffic is the number of pilots who call South Florida home. According to FAA records, more than 3,000 pilots are registered in Palm Beach County, with 575 calling Boca Raton home.
All this aviation has an impact on Palm Beach County, with some of it positive and some problematic.
In 2014, the Florida Department of Transportation Aviation Office conducted a study that found aviation in Florida was responsible for about $144 billion in positive economic impact.
The study also reported the individual economic impact of each of the 103 general aviation airports and 19 commercial airports in the state, looking at direct and indirect impacts.
The report estimated that Palm Beach International Airport had a total impact of about $3.4 billion, while Boca Raton Airport had an estimated economic impact of about $173 million. Lantana’s impact was about $27 million and that of the Palm Beach Gardens airport was about $53 million. The smaller airport in Pahokee had an economic impact of about $1.9 million.
The report also showed that general aviation airports created more than 2,200 jobs, while PBIA created just over 34,000 jobs.
The downside to lots of planes in the air is noise. And that, in some ways, brings us back to the president’s visits.
Over the years, noise complaints at several local airports have tapered off a bit, in part because technology has helped jets become quieter and in part because residents living near flight paths are a little more accepting of the disruption.
With temporary flight restrictions in place, that has changed.
At PBIA, where planes now use different flight paths during presidential visits, noise complaints have skyrocketed. In February of last year, for example, there were 27 complaints. This February, there were 150, according to the county. In March 2016, there were 16 noise complaints; this year there were 280 through March 24.
County airport officials attribute most of the increase in noise complaints to the president’s visits. They also point out that often multiple complaints come from the same households.
The temporary flight restrictions also are responsible for an increase in noise complaints at Boca Raton Airport because pilots who ordinarily use PBIA and Lantana are choosing to come and go out of that airport.
Pilots flying out of PBIA can avoid going through a somewhat cumbersome screening process by flying out of Boca Raton, as can pilots from Lantana, which is essentially closed when the president is in town.
On the first weekend the president was at Mar-a-Lago, Boca saw a 35 percent increase in the number of operations, with takeoffs and landings increasing from 298 on the same early February weekend a year ago to 403 this year. The number jumped 50 percent during the president’s fifth visit on the third weekend in March, with 164 more operations than the previous year.
During the president’s visits there were 17 noise complaints attributed to the temporary flight restrictions, according to Boca airport reports. There were 26 other noise complaints this year as of late March that were not directly attributed to the president’s visits.
There were complaints about loud noise from F-15 fighter jets that were deployed when some pilots failed to adhere to temporary flight restrictions. In all, there were more than 35 violations, most coming on the weekend of Feb. 17, when there were 14, according to the FAA.
While Boca Raton is seeing more traffic, Lantana is suffering to the point where some of the businesses on the airport grounds, including some of the flight schools, are considering moving.
The problem, says Dave Johnson, president of Palm Beach Aircraft Services on the Lantana airport grounds, is the uncertainty.
“We don’t know if he’s coming until a few days before,” he said.
Although some are moving their planes to Boca Raton when they know the president is coming, Gottlieb says that is not feasible for her when she takes the Angel Flight passenger to Gainesville for a Monday appointment.
To move her plane to Boca she would have to drive to the Lantana airport and fly the plane from there to Boca Raton on Friday. Her husband would have to pick her up and take her to Lantana to get her car. On Sunday she would have to drive to Boca Raton for the flight and leave her car there.
When she came home on Monday she could fly directly into Lantana but then she would have to get a ride to Boca Raton to get her car.
“There’s only so much I can do,” she said.
— Michelle Quigley contributed to this story