WEST OCEAN CITY – Commercial operators at the Ocean City Municipal Airport say they are seeking guidance on federal flight restrictions ahead of President Joe Biden’s summer trips to the beach.
This summer, Biden is expected to visit his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach. Those travel plans also include a temporary flight restriction (TFR) on airspace within 30 miles of the president’s location.
At the Ocean City Airport, which is located at the outermost edge of the TFR, commercial operators say they are seeking assistance from federal agencies as they prepare for the coming summer season. While they do not plan to cease operations, they note the proposed flight restrictions will have some impact on their businesses.
“We’ve enlisted the help of every political representative, senator that will take my calls at this point,” said Airport Manager Jaime Giandomenico. “The three big missing pieces are the frequency, the duration and the notice. We have no idea how frequent it’s going to be, no idea how long it’s going to be in each installment, and the notification is variable, for obvious reasons.”
Simply put, a TFR is a restriction placed on airspace during special events, natural disasters, or movement of a president or vice president. The restriction is defined by its size, altitude and time period, and outlines the types of operations prohibited in that area.
“Essentially, it’s an umbrella of protected airspace around a VIP …,” Giandomenico said. “Wherever he goes, whatever his destination is, this TFR goes up.”
These restrictions, however, come withchallenges for airport-based businesses operating within the TFR.
“Being here in Ocean City, the tourist season, the summer season, is really when we have the opportunity to make the most money,” said Skydive OC owner Jeanice Dolan, one of three commercial aviation operators at the Ocean City Airport. “It’s tough when we don’t know what we are up against.”
Dolan said her concerns about the TFR include notice and timing.
“The worst-case scenario is for this VIP TFR to be in effect on weekends when we are busiest, and on good-weather weekends …,” she said. “We understand this is for national security, but we believe there are procedures they can put in place that will still accomplish the goals of Secret Service. We want to work with them, but we want them to communicate with us.”
Giandomenico said TFRs are administered by the FAA and controlled by United States Secret Service. Restrictions, he said, depend upon location within a TFR.
“There’s an inner ring, that’s really tight security, and there’s an outer ring,” he said. “We are in the outer ring, far south toward the edge, which bodes well in our favor for some kind of relief.”
Giandomenico said efforts are underway to seek a cut-out or alternative arrangement that would allow business to continue during Biden’s trips to Rehoboth.
“This has the potential to be a long-term, recurring type thing,” he said. “So there’s an opportunity to have some procedures that would allow these guys to operate and not impact security.”
Chris Bunting, manager and pilot for Ocean Aerial, Cloud Dancer and Bunting’s Dusting, said his businesses operate out of two airfields, both located within the 30-mile TFR. While he commended the Secret Service for being responsive, he said questions remain over potential economic impact funding.
“As of right now, we aren’t getting any answers on reimbursement and funding,” he said. “After COVID last year, that’s not a financial burden we can bear, especially when we are going to lose business with not being able to fly in Rehoboth when he’s here.”
Giandomenico explained there are compensation funds set aside for commercial operators. Accessing that money, he said, is another issue.
“It’s a Herculean exercise to get to it, and its depth is highly dubious …,” he said. “There’s real worry about how this is authorized and replenished.”
Unlike his colleagues, Ocean Aviation President Michael Freed said his business can operate outside the TFR.
“We will have to work around the regulations,” he said, “but our airplanes can fly out of the TFR – which is about a three- to four-mile range – train and then come back in.”
Freed, however, said his biggest concern was the perception that the airport’s commercial businesses would have to cease operations.
“There will be some financial impact for everyone until they start deciphering what they can and cannot do …,” he said. “But nobody is ceasing operations.”
Giandomenico said he also expects the airport operations to take a hit from the proposed flight restrictions, which establish strict security procedures for planes that arrive and depart. He noted drones are also prohibited in the TFR.
“It’s pretty serious,” he said. “If you transgress into this airspace and are nonresponsive or are on the wrong frequency, fighter jets from the U.S. Air Force will come out and intercept you.”
With the summer season fast approaching, commercial operators say they are flying blind until more information is provided.
“It’s a very tenuous thing, to be staring down the summer season and assume you are going to get some sort of cooperation from a not-very-transparent federal agency,” Giandomenico said. “It’s tough to sit still on that.”