April 6, 2017

At any time of the year, operations at Palm Beach International Airport (PBI) on Florida’s east coast are a diverse mix of general aviation, commercial flights and air cargo. During the winter months, however, PBI usually becomes one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country, with significant increases in business aviation operations, tourism-related general aviation flights and maintenance shop work.

Not so this past winter, however.

Just about 2 miles to the east of PBI lies President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. Consequently, in an unusual twist for an airport where the majority of operations are general aviation, PBI has been thrust into becoming the home base for Air Force One and related aircraft when the president is in town – which has been many weekends since the inauguration in January.

As a result, the Mar-a-Lago POTUS TFR – which requires all inbound general aviation flights to get first get cleared fat the “gateway” airports of Fort Lauderdale International (FLL), Orlando International Airport (MCO), Dulles International Airport (IAD), Teterboro Airport (TEB) or Westchester County Airport (HPN) – have severely impacted many general aviation businesses at PBI. A number of other onerous restrictions also apply.

“Our aviation revenue is off by about 50 percent,” said Wayne Garner, president of Big Sky Aviation, a PBI-based 24/7/365 maintenance company that has served aircraft from Boeing 767 to small piston planes for more than 30 years. “We count on the normally very busy winter season to see us through the slow months, but with President Trump coming in so many times this year, it may be difficult to survive through the summer. Business is as slow or slower than it was during the worst of the recession in 2007-2008.”

Garner’s company also serves the airlines and FedEx at PBI, but business aviation maintenance and repairs is 75 percent of Big Sky’s revenue. The company has a fleet of seven mobile AOG units that it is dispatching with ever more frequency to airports throughout south Florida “to chase the business,” but Big Sky Aviation has had to stop billing for some travel time and expenses.

If business continues to falter because of the TFR, Garner said he will have to reconsider keeping their hangar at PBI. Big Sky, which normally employs nearly 60 people, has had to scale back work hours, forcing some employees to find work elsewhere.

Todd Sabo, president of PBI-based Infinity Aircraft Services, a full-service FAA Certified Repair Station also operating 24/7/365, said that he has had to renegotiate vendor contracts to help off-set revenue loss compared to previous years for the weeks that President Trump has spent at Mar-a-Lago. Sabo’s company, which exclusively services general aviation aircraft and uses full-service mobile units throughout Florida, predicts the off season will be “very challenging.”

“It’s not just when the president is on the ground in Palm Beach, it affects the entire week,” said Sabo. “The TFRs require operators to make additional flight filings that limit the flexibility our customers seek. I’m concerned that after four and possibly eight years of working around these TFRs, clients will have become accustomed to an alternative to Palm Beach Airport, and many simply won’t come back.”

Sabo said there should be some compensation for PBI businesses impacted by the TFRs, and is taking up his plight with the Palm Beach County Department of Airports, his senators and the governor.

Alex Gertsen, NBAA director of airports and ground infrastructure, said that in addition to the PBI impacts, operations at nearby Palm Beach County Park (Lantana) Airport (LNA), have come nearly to a halt, as only pre-screened flights from gateway airports are allowed to land when the TFR is active, and no flights are permitted to depart. The TFRs come exactly when the airport would be at its busiest – on the weekends – with flight training and transient operations.

View NBAA’s POTUS TRF page.