Obama and New England aviation businesses start their vacation

President Obama arrives on Martha’s Vineyard for a two-week vacation starting today. This effectively shuts down Cape Cod, the Vineyard, and Nantucket as aviation destinations (see tfr.faa.gov for maps showing the 70-mile (60 nautical) diameter circles of restricted/forbidden airspace) and therefore shuts down a lot of New England-based aviation businesses (flight schools that normally rent planes to people visiting these islands, sightseeing operators, aircraft maintenance, aircraft fuelers, etc.). There will ultimately be at least three different flight restrictions. Obama will fly in a Boeing 747 from Washington, D.C. up to Otis on the Cape. Due to the fact that the runway on the Vineyard is only 6000 feet long he will be transferred to a smaller aircraft (in previous years a Boeing 757 and also an Osprey?) and fly 5 minutes from Otis to the Vineyard. It is unclear why he wouldn’t prefer to take a Boeing 757 non-stop from D.C.

I spent the previous week on the Vineyard. The Secret Service was already encamped in rented houses with SUVs flown in from D.C. Ospreys thundered overhead in flights of three. “I thought it was odd that the newspaper carried an official government notice that it was ‘forbidden to welcome’ President Obama at the airport,” said one summer resident while crabbing with her daughter. “That’s not a phrase that I’ve seen before.”

We departed this morning about 1.5 hours before Obama was due to arrive. As we drove to the airport we found the highways clogged with black SUVs bearing D.C. plates and at least a dozen Massachusetts State Police cruisers. There were two Coast Guard Eurocopters parked on the ramp. In case those helicopters, plus the Marine helicopters that had been previously flown up in C-17 cargo planes, were not sufficient, the Massachusetts State Police was there with its own gold-plated Eurocopter (see this 2012 posting and this February 2014 posting for more on the state’s EC135). During the preflight we watched a $100 million Osprey land and depart. As we taxied out in our little four-seat airplane we heard an FAA ground vehicle communicating with the ground controller about a from-the-ground airport equipment inspection (weather was perfect for visual flying so in fact no equipment was necessary for taking off or landing). As we took off we heard the State Police call the Tower to request orbits around the field (at $2000 per hour) so that they could “conduct a runway inspection”).


A Dutch friend asked if this pomp and circumstance was related to our English heritage. I replied that David Cameron regularly flew London/D.C. on British Airways (example). She replied “The Dutch Prime Minister rides to work on a bicycle.”

14 thoughts on “Obama and New England aviation businesses start their vacation

  1. Can you name who the Dutch Prime Minister is off the top of your head? Would you be able to recognize him if you saw him in the street?

    The US President, on the other hand, is known by just about everyone on earth and is a target for Al Qaeda as well as assorted nutjobs of all varieties. Add to that our history as a violent society with lots of guns (murder rate several times greater than other industrial democracies) and a long history of assassinations and attempted assassinations of Presidents and there is good reason to be concerned.

    However, it’s true that the Presidency has become increasingly imperial – maybe that’s because we are increasingly an empire. The President of the United States is not just the elected leader of our country, he is the de facto Western Emperor to whom the world turns when anything goes wrong (and gets blamed if it does). Does anyone ask the Dutch Prime Minister to send his aircraft carriers to help the Yazidis on the mountain?

    Still, I agree that the whole thing has become ridiculous. Once Bush was visiting my neighborhood for a fund raiser and they closed off all the streets for miles around and posted a policeman in front of my driveway who wouldn’t let me leave my house – I was effectively under house arrest. And apparently I found out later, I was only on the decoy route, not the real route. If we are going to have this kind of imperial presidency, the president should have the decency to just stay in Washington or at Camp David so he doesn’t inconvenience thousands or millions of people just so he can have cocktails or play golf.

    The problem with empires is that they are expensive things to run and the imperial perks only get grander and grander. Usually at some point the cost of maintaining the whole enterprise become unaffordable, especially if the empire stops growing or starts to shrink. We may be approaching that point, but apparently not yet. Unfortunately, the declines when they come can be quite sudden. But don’t look for Obama to be sitting next to you in coach any time soon (or probably for the rest of his life – I saw Ford once after he had left office and he still had quite an entourage.)

  2. PS The US President (unlike Dutch / British Prime Ministers) are both the head of government AND the head of state – they are the Prime Minister and King rolled into one. That’s why he (and the Queen) lives in a palace and the British Prime Minister lives in a row house.

  3. The three most prominent African-American political figures of the last hundred years are Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama. Consider the fate of the other two and the effect on the nation should the third meet a similar demise.

  4. Brian: Let’s assume that you are correct and the U.S. could not sustain the loss of a president with darker-than-the-previous-average skin color. Instead of sending out lackeys to lick the MVY runways clean, wouldn’t it make more sense for Obama to cut back on his travel to fundraisers, etc.? Every flight on Air Force One is a risk (see http://archive.delawareonline.com/article/20060614/NEWS/60614001/Air-Force-blames-crew-C-5-crash for how five U.S. Air Force pilots managed to wreck a $175 million cargo plane in an Asiana-in-San-Francisco-style accident (it was just bad luck for these Americans; the Koreans, by contrast, have a defective culture). Certainly every hop in one of his 40-year-old helicopters presents a risk. And I am not even sure how one would begin to calculate the risk of traveling in an Osprey (prototyped in 1985; flown in 1989; crashed (two) 1991-1992; flight tested in 1997; crashed (two) in 2000; deployed in 2007). Given that the last attacker who got anywhere near the U.S. president was John Hinckley, Jr. (33 years ago; he walked up and used a .22 revolver rather than tunneling under a runway at a busy airport that has had continuous 24-hour security for the past few decades), it would seem that the statistical risk from constant travel is higher than the statistical risk from a would-be assassin.

    [It may be that the risk of the Osprey is actually too frightening for Obama and his staff. A quick Google search reveals that the Osprey was used to fly the family dog last year and “security people” this year. http://www.mvtimes.com/2014/08/09/obama-vacation-beat/ indicates that Obama traveled from Otis to MVY in a conventional helicopter.]

    As I noted in a March 2011 posting, Obama could stay in Washington, D.C. and send Air Force One out to pick up the $5,000-per-plate donors. Then the travel risk would be borne by the fat-cats (and if a few hundred of them died on the way to or from D.C. that would pump up the U.S. Treasury with Estate Tax dollars as well as reduce income inequality) and we wouldn’t need the $1 billion/year Marine One helicopters (or the $11 billion in capital expense for replacements; see http://gizmodo.com/the-13-billion-presidential-helicopters-we-scrapped-an-978480541 ).

    Finally, if you are correct that we would need to spend additional billions of dollars every year to protect a president who identifies as “African-American”, isn’t that an argument against electing such a person? Wouldn’t the taxpayers be better off electing expendable white males where it would be easy to pull a replacement out of a filing cabinet?

  5. The point about the president being head of state is a good one, but this is getting ridiculous. Its gotten beyond how past presidents travelled, and I don’t think the Queen of England travels around this obtrusively either.

    As pointed out, the president already has a perfectly good place to take a summer vacation, Camp David. If he can’t travel without the praetorian guard, he can spend 4-8 summers there. Most military bases also have some sort of recreation area with cabins, Truman for example used the naval air station in Key West.

    For fundraisers, the suggestion to fly them in is a good one, though there is a legal problem with fundraising on government property. But both parties could rent, or even buy, hotels in DC and use them for this purpose, there is even one almost across the street from the White House.

  6. Of course this is about the presidency in general, not Obama in particular.

    As for restricting a president from travelling, I don’t think we would be well served by isolating the president even more than he is now.

  7. Philip: You’re response to Brian was odd, and a little offensive. I don’t think that there’s any evidence that more money is being spent to protect Obama than was spent to protect recent white presidents. And why do you put the word African-American in quotes?

    Also, I don’t think that you can say that all of the presidential air travel is statistically more dangerous than the risk of assassination. Every president for the past few decades has spent a lot of time in airplanes and none has ever died in a crash. We all know that quite a few have been murdered.

    One could say that the basic issue is that we have never determined the maximum cost that we want to incur, in taxes and otherwise, to protect the president’s life.

  8. Vince: I don’t believe that I suggested more money was being spent to protect Obama. It was Brian who suggested that Obama, due to his skin color, was uniquely valuable and should be protected without regard to cost. I apologize if you are offended that a taxpayer should try to put a value on a president’s life, but keep in mind that the government puts a value on taxpayers’ lives all the time when deciding whether to spend public money or impose certain regulations (such as safety equipment in automobiles or safety improvements to airplanes). The Secret Service’s budget is about $1.6 billion per year. Add another $1 billion for the Marine One helicopters and then another $2 billion for Air Force One and the cargo jets? So that’s $4.6 billion per year not counting what state and local governments spend or the losses in reduced economic activity from shutting down cities, aviation business, etc. So perhaps $6 billion total? If someone is valuable enough to spend $48 billion protecting over an eight-year period, isn’t that person too valuable to be taking optional trips?

    As to “quite a few [presidents] have been murdered” in the “past few decades”, I can think of only one: John F. Kennedy (out of four total presidents in 225 years). Fifty-one years ago he was on his way to a fund-raising dinner. JFK might still be alive today if the donors had instead been flown to Washington, D.C.

    As to the idea that heads of state are immune from transportation risk, see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/apr/10/poland-lech-kaczynski-russia-crash

    Anyway, if you owned a stack of Rembrandt and Vermeer oil paintings worth $48 billion would you keep them in continuous motion on airplanes and helicopters?

    [Why quote a label such as “white”, “black”, or “African-American”? For starters, I was quoting from Brian’s comment. Also, I think that is the correct English-language style, e.g., “Joe identifies as ‘white'”, but I’m not a copy editor…]

  9. Vince, not to speak for Phil but I think he was responding ironically by playing out the full implications Brian’s premise, in the grand tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal. I don’t think Phil ever said or even implied that this was in fact the reason why Obama was getting heavy security – that was Brian’s idea, not Phil’s. Phil then pointed out that when you play out Brian’s premise to its logical conclusion it applies not just to Obama but to ALL future African American Presidents or even to anyone who claimed to be one (thus the “scare quotes”) at least until the assassination odds even up with prominent whites, I guess.

  10. To be serious, there is a tension here. OTOH, I agree w/ Phil that it would both increase the President’s safety (both from the risks of travel and the risk of assassination) if he were to travel less, especially for non-essential purposes such as fund raising and vacations, at least until such time as his (or her) protection no longer required both massive cost and massive inconvenience to tens of thousands (or millions – every time the President visits Manhattan) of Americans.

    OTOH, we know that modern Presidents already live in a bubble that isolates them from the everyday realities of American life and (as wally points out), it may not really be a good idea to isolate them even further.

    On the 3rd hand, it’s hard to say that staying at some palatial estate on Martha’s Vineyard or attending a fund raiser at a billionaire’s house really puts the President in touch with the people.

  11. I’m aware that the government does put a price on human lives. I’ve even read that different agencies use different amounts. I’m not offended by the cost discussion. It was the racial stuff that was a bit much for me. One could take the opposite point of view and say that we should elect black people as president exclusively for the next 50 years. After that, it wouldn’t be such a big deal if a black president got assassinated.

    I also never stated that heads of state are immune to air accidents. And if you want to be thorough about it, we should mention the assassination attempts that have been made since 1963, such as those on Ford and Reagan. On the other hand, Izzie makes a good point when he states that keeping the president in the White House would eliminate transportation risk and seriously reduce assassination risk.

    Similarly, if you want to be thorough in the discussion of costs, you should consider the fact that the large coterie of federal employees and journalists who will follow the president to Martha’s Vineyard will spend a bunch of money at local hotels, restaurants, etc.

    As I wrote, the basic issue is that one would have to start by determining the maximum amount that should be spent to protect the president. How would we go about calculating that amount?

  12. I doubt that Obama (or Bush in his day) even thinks about what kind of travel arrangements are being made on his behalf. It’s the lackeys around them who like to be part of a grand spectacle, compounded by unfettered risk aversion in the federal and MA security apparatus.

  13. Police have always been risk averse and lackeys have always loved spectacles but they didn’t used to have access to such huge piles of money. There has been some kind of disconnect in our society where the checks and balances that used to apply no longer apply. I don’t blame those spending the money any more than I would blame a drug addict or a gambling addict – they will all spend every last cent that you give them. I blame our elected officials for giving out this kind of money, especially now that it is money we really don’t have. Especially after 9/11 (and in Boston, the bombing), all you have to do is say the magic words, “national security”. Imagine if a crack addict could just print up as much money as he wanted to support his wish list.

    Meanwhile, this is asymmetrical warfare par excellence. On the other side, all you need is a pressure cooker and some firecrackers or a $40 Saturday night special and you can cause your enemy to spend millions or billions.

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