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President Biden’s Delaware travel is no day at the beach for Ocean City’s banner-towing airplanes and skydivers

Joe Biden is hardly the most beloved of chief executives in Republican-friendly Worcester County. The Maryland county, which is home to Ocean City, hasn’t voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1964.

Biden didn’t help his cause, the locals say, by planning a visit this week to the nearby Rehoboth Beach area of Delaware — a trip necessitating flight restrictions that caused a scramble by the operators of Ocean City’s iconic banner-towing planes, sightseeing planes and skydiving companies to salvage business during their peak season.

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“There’s a lot of trash-talking” about Biden, said Jeanice Dolan, owner of Skydive OC, which had booked about 150 “tandem” skydives — a jump made with an instructor in tow— during a week that may now coincide with Biden’s vacation plans about 30 miles away at the home he bought in 2017.

The locals had been told last week that flight restrictions would begin Monday, and they were expecting the president to arrive then. The White House said Sunday that he would remain in Wilmington Monday, and it was uncertain when his beach vacation would start. His vacation may be delayed because the Senate has pushed back its August recess to continue working on legislation to improve roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

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Dolan’s sky diving company was grounded during a two-day Biden trip to Rehoboth in early June, and she imagined having to call even more customers this time to cancel their 12,000-feet jumps overlooking the scenic Atlantic coast.

After consulting her congressman, Republican Rep. Andy Harris, Dolan said she reached an accommodation with federal officials allowing jumps to continue— and saving $50,000 in potentially lost revenue — if the pilots stay within a 5-mile radius of the Ocean City airport, and a manifest is filed 12 hours in advance.

While the 5-mile limit wouldn’t present a major hardship, she said the advance notice requirement “eliminates our ability to take walk-ins. But at this point, beggars can’t be choosers.” She said she understands that the priority is ensuring the president’s safety, which she calls “the big picture.”

For years, presidential travel has upended the plans of companies using planes for flight lessons, sightseeing, advertising, crop dusting and other purposes. Temporary Flight Restrictions, or TFRs, which typically extend about 30 nautical miles in each direction, prevent aircrafts and drones from entering areas during VIP visits, disasters, major sporting events and other circumstances posing security risks, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

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“We saw this a lot with [former] President Trump too in Florida,” said Christopher Cooper of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, a Frederick-based membership organization that works with the FAA and Secret Service to help airports and aviation businesses cope with temporary restricted zones. “Florida is not a wide state, so a TFR can wipe out a large section of it.”

The new wrinkle for Maryland this year is having a president from a neighboring state.

Biden, a former vice president and Delaware senator who was sworn in Jan. 20, not only vacations at the beach but occasionally heads to his home near Wilmington, Delaware. That means more flight restrictions in Maryland, which already has permanent airspace limits around the presidential retreat at Camp David in Frederick County.

Wilmington is close enough to Maryland that the Harford County Airport needed to obtain a “carveout” —a waiver of sorts — early this year enabling it to fly planes even when Biden is in his home state.

Biden arrived in Wilmington on Friday, and the Harford airport said it was advised that temporary flight restrictions were in effect for the weekend.

“We have about a 1.2- or 1.3-mile radius off the center of our airport — a fairly small circle where you have to take off and stay inside of that area,” airport manager Kevin Hess said.

Hess says airport revenues— for example, from plane rentals and fuel sales— decline somewhat during restricted periods, although he’s not sure by exactly how much. “When you talk to people, yes, they are less likely to fly. It’s another thing to worry about,” he said.

Kevin Hess is the owner of the Harford County Airport in Churchville. He holds one of the temporary flight restriction signs that he posts at the airport when President Joe Biden is at his home in Delaware.
Kevin Hess is the owner of the Harford County Airport in Churchville. He holds one of the temporary flight restriction signs that he posts at the airport when President Joe Biden is at his home in Delaware. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

When restrictions are in place, Hess positions large signs near the runways and other locations. The signs say “TFR” in oversized, red lettering along with “CHECK NOTAMS,” which refers pilots to official guidance called Notices to Airmen.

Ocean City’s airport — home to all sorts of planes, from Piper Cubs to Gulfstream jets — also does “all kinds of outreach” to ensure that pilots know what’s off-limits, said airport manager Jaime Giandomenico.

The FAA won’t say how frequently pilots cross into unauthorized airspace during presidential trips. F-16 fighter jets are sometimes summoned to escort a wayward plane out of the zone. Pilots can temporarily or permanently lose their licenses for such infractions.

“If we see a big jet beside us — or a helicopter —we know we’re on the wrong side,” joked Bob Bunting, who said he is vigilant about making sure his Ocean City area sightseeing, advertising and crop-dusting planes don’t veer into restricted airspace.

Bunting’s company, Ocean Aerial Ads, pilots the planes that move languidly across the beach carrying “Happy Birthday” messages, wedding proposals and banners for beer companies, restaurants, nightspots and other clients.

“When you’re dealing with a banner plane flying 35 miles per hour down the beach, you’re not much of a threat,” Bunting said.

But he said his planes’ routes must be limited during Biden’s stay, and that all must be equipped with radios allowing the aircraft to be easily tracked. He must also file flight plans in advance.

“If the people make a [sightseeing] reservation the night before, I’ll say, ‘I’m going to go 5 miles down the coast of Assateague and north up the coast of Ocean City.’ It’s not that difficult, but we’re used to not having to do it,” Bunting said.

Harris — whose congressional district includes parts of Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties, as well as the Eastern Shore — recently teamed with Democratic Rep. C.A.. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County on legislative language allocating $4 million to compensate businesses for economic losses from flight restrictions due to presidential travel. Harris has also worked with businesses such as Skydive OC that are trying to remain in the air during such trips.

“It is usually small operations who are impacted when their skydiving and banner planes are grounded, and the $4 million now included in the bill will go a long way in making them whole,” Ruppersberger said.

The language is contained in a large spending package that passed the House last month and is pending in the Senate.

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It’s not the first time Congress has provided such funding. Legislation signed by Trump in 2019 provided $3.5 million in relief for aviation-related business lost during presidential travel. Trump regularly traveled to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida or his golf club in New Jersey.

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Among those interested in applying for such grants is Bunting, who said his company had no choice but to buy the special radios if it wanted to keep its planes flying when the president is nearby.

“We’ve spent $25,000 to $30,000 out of our own pocket,” he said.

Bunting said he appreciates that federal authorities generally seemed to be trying to accommodate his desire to keep his businesses going this week. The FAA did not respond to questions about specific flight arrangements made with companies such as his during the Rehoboth Beach trip.

“Is it a pain? Yes. Are they halfway working with us? Yes,” Bunting said. “We don’t know if it’s really doable until we put all this in action. It’s a lot going on.”

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