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Small airports brace for restrictions because of Republican National Convention

While the Republican National Convention will bring some big business to town, some aviation-related companies will find themselves grounded, at least partially.

"It's going to shut us down," said Deric Dymerski, president of Atlas Aviation, the company that operates Peter O. Knight Airport, which is less than 3 miles from the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The airport falls within a temporary flight-restriction zone put in place by the Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies handling security for the convention, Aug. 27-30.

Dymerski said the airport won't be able to offer in-air flight instruction, rent its seven planes, act as a fuel stop, or let any private owners fly in or out except between midnight and 9 a.m. Those who plan to fly during that time will have to move their planes to other airports that lie outside the 3-nautical-mile zone.

"Once you use the words 'national security,' there's not much you can do about it," said Dymerski, who voiced his opposition at planning meetings.

Secret Service spokesman George Ogilvie declined to comment on specifics regarding the reasons for such restrictions.

"They're not unusual," he said. "We develop these in conjunction with our agencies."

Flight restrictions are always put in place whenever President Barack Obama visits the Tampa Bay area. Flight restrictions will also be in place in the area surrounding Charlotte, N.C., when the Democratic National Convention begins Sept. 3.

Other Tampa Bay area airports also have restrictions but are less severe. Flights at Albert Whitted Airport will be banned from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Aug. 26 because of a preconvention party at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

After that, aircraft may arrive or depart as long as they file flight plans with the Federal Aviation Administration and use squawk codes. No loitering is allowed.

"It's a little bit of a bummer," said Steve Methot, manager at Bay Air Flying Service Inc., which offers flight lessons at Albert Whitted. But he said the airport would pretty much shut down Aug. 26 and will be able to work around the more relaxed rules for the rest of the week.

Flights by the military, law enforcement agencies, Bayflite and other ambulance aircraft, as well as regularly scheduled commercial and cargo flights operating under an approved security plan, are not affected by any of the restrictions.

On Aug. 27, the restricted zone shifts north and encompasses the area that includes Peter O. Knight Airport, and also the Tampa Executive Airport, which is within the 10-mile restricted zone. Operations at Tampa Executive must shut down from noon to midnight Aug. 27 and from 4 p.m. to midnight Aug. 28 through 30.

For airports located between 10 and 30 nautical miles from the convention, flights are restricted from 4 p.m. to midnight. Arriving and departing flights are allowed as long as they filed flight plans and use the approved codes.

"They're not as strict as they could be," said Tom Zecha, manager of aviation security for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which includes 415,000 pilots. Zecha represented the group as authorities drew up the flight restrictions.

Zecha noted the restrictions on the outer rings don't kick in until late afternoon.

That offered little consolation for David T.K. Hayes, owner of Skydive City in Zephyrhills.

Hayes initially thought the restrictions would shut down his operation for four days, but later acknowledged he misread the memo. He'll have to close for the day at noon on Aug. 27 but can operate until 4 p.m. during the rest of the convention.

"We'll lose some business," Hayes said. "It's a smaller effect."

The Hernando County Airport doesn't expect to see much of a boost in aviation traffic from the tens of thousands of people expected to descend on Tampa for the convention, even though it lies just outside the 30-mile restriction zone. It also is one of three designated deviation airports for planes that normally fly within restricted areas.

"I think it will be pretty much operations as normal," said airport manager Don Silvernell.

He said there's been just a handful of calls from people inquiring about the airport tied to the convention. "We would like to think that we would benefit some," he said.

The St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport has the best chance to cash in. It will be shifted into the no-fly zone on Aug. 26, the day of the RNC party at Tropicana Field, but the next day lies outside the 10-mile restricted zone.

Deputy director Thomas Jewsbury said in May that the airport was preparing a plan to accommodate increased traffic during the convention. However, spokeswoman Michele Routh said this week there had been no real uptick in inquiries.

When the Super Bowl came to Tampa in 2009, a no-fly zone was set up around Raymond James Stadium for the day of the game. On that single day, more than 250 additional general aviation planes flew into the airport.

Dymerski said the staffers at Knight Airport are organizing a getaway for their students and pilots, possibly to Key West.

"We're calling it 'Escape the RNC,' " he said.

Times staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Tampa Executive Airport will be under flight restrictions from noon to midnight on Aug. 27 and from 4 p.m. to midnight Aug. 28 through 30 due to the Republican National Convention. The original version of this article listed an incorrect start time for the restrictions on the final three days.

Small airports brace for restrictions because of Republican National Convention 08/08/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 13, 2012 3:02pm]
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