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Ask Mr. Sun: How airlines, McCarran are affected by a presidential visit

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Steve Marcus

Air Force One touches down at McCarran International Airport on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012.

Updated Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 | 12:25 p.m.

Air Force One

Air Force One comes in for a landing at McCarran International Airport Monday Oct. 24, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Map of McCarran International Airport

McCarran International Airport

Paradise Road, Las Vegas

It’s nice of the president of the United States to visit Las Vegas as often as he does, but doesn’t he cause a bit of disruption at McCarran International Airport each time he drops in?

Well, pardner, you’re right about that — President Barack Obama does seem to have a hankering for these parts. He’s flown into Southern Nevada six times this year — make that seven after Wednesday night’s drop-in.

Each time the president lands in that beautiful airship of ours, and again when he takes off, the air space around McCarran is closed for 30 to 45 minutes. Not only are aircraft told to keep their distance, but all airport workers on the ground — including the good folks handling baggage, fueling, food deliveries and the like — are told to go indoors until they get the all-clear from the Secret Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Airlines are given notice by the Federal Aviation Administration when there is “VIP” air traffic expected that day and generally what time of day. While no one makes specific reference to Air Force One, everyone knows with a wink just like mine that they’re talking about presidential travel.

Later, when the flight times of the VIP are better nailed down, airlines are notified and make appropriate accommodations. For long-haul flights — such as those scheduled to take off before the president’s flight times are specifically known — planes are given extra fuel to fly around until they get the all-clear to land; on closer flights — say, from Los Angeles or Phoenix, and when Air Force One’s schedule is better known before flights would take off — boarding of Las Vegas-bound aircraft would be delayed to avoid arriving before the airspace is opened.

Similarly, flights departing McCarran have to adjust accordingly: They’re held on the ground as Air Force One — er, VIP traffic — approaches. If an aircraft happens to push back just before airspace is closed, it would have to twiddle its thumbs until the president lands, shakes hands and leaves the airport in his motorcade. (The same freeze occurs when the president’s motorcade returns to McCarran for departure.)

There’s a possibility that a delayed flight out of McCarran could cause a passenger to miss a connection at the next airport, but our friends at Southwest, which is McCarran’s most active airline, say agents do their best to hold a flight at the next stop or find another flight to accommodate the VIP-delayed passenger.

Do these delays frustrate passengers? “Passengers get annoyed with any sort of delay, but once they know it’s the president, they realize there’s nothing that anyone can do about it,” Southwest spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said. “And then they figure, 'Hey, maybe we can get a glimpse of Air Force One.'”

CORRECTION: The column has been updated to reflect that President Obama has come to Southern Nevada seven times, but he did not fly into McCarran for each of those visits. | (October 23, 2012)

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  1. Why does Obama always fly into McCarran? Normally, Air Force One uses military runways whenever possible. It seems that Nellis would be more secure and much less disruptive.
    Millions of folks who fly out of McCarran need to make a connecting flight to get home, and being delayed 45 to 60 minutes causes them to miss that connection in Chicago, and Atlanta, and DFW, and so forth. It makes no sense to cause so many people to have so much inconvenience when Nellis AFB is so close.

  2. Actually, Air Force One does NOT use military runways when possible, it uses the most appropriate. The Secret Service is far more concerned about the drive. AF1 and the President are pretty secure from most practical threats at a commercial airport. Make no mistake about it, even at McCarran it's restricted. When I was working on the ramp I was able to get within 100 feet or so from AF1 and take pictures, all under the watchful eye of a Secret Service agent. Had I gone too close I would have know it QUICK. Sure Nellis is theoretically more secure, but even there the airmen and officers are prohibited from being out on the ramp, the Secret Service takes security that seriously.

    The trip from and to the airport, however, is insecure and unpredictable. To accommodate this the Secret Service chooses a plan that minimizes a Presidents route on the streets. When Obama was in NLV last month they went with Nellis. Most times, however, McCarran is FAR closer. It's closer to pretty much everywhere except the northeast part of town.

    Even if Obama used Nellis, it wouldn't change a thing in regards to the airports; McCarran is STILL within the TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) for the President. The Secret Service has elected to use a 30 mile bubble of the landing airport for the TFR to accommodate AF!s arrival and departure. Once AF1 is on the ground (not certain on the EXACT timing of the change) it shrinks to 10 miles of the President. There are exceptions; earlier this month with Obama at Lake Las Vegas the 10 mile bubble was only eight, presumably to accommodate the Hoover Dam tours as the Dam was just barely outside of that eight mile limit.

    For what it's worth, I'm speaking as a pilot as well as someone who's experienced several AF1 holds at McCarran and one on Nellis.

  3. Thanks for the enlightenment DANINVEGAS.

    And thank you also SINATRA711. How unfortunate that you were inconvenienced on 2 separate occasions by President Obama's travel. Bad Karma, perhaps.

  4. Yes, it's a disruption wherever He goes -- regardless of mode of transportation. Now move on.

  5. It's nice that Obama can campaign on the taxpayer's dime.

    The travel disruptions are nonsensical, and costly.

  6. Is the president supposed to not leave the white house until his term is over so he doesn't inconvenience anybody? You think a flight delay is inconvenient?? He has to have secret service follow him around for the rest of his life because people want to kill him. Get over it!

    Be happy that LV is getting this much attention during the election. It is nothing but good for the city!

  7. I've been aboard military bases many times when the president has arrived and in fact was assigned to Presidential Security at El Toro 72-76. Nixon used to fly into MCAS El Toro (Orange Co, CA) and then helicoptered to his home south of the base.

    G. H. W. B. flew into MCAS Cherry Point, NC more than once while I was stationed there. Bill Clinton did not.

    Military helicopter, executive jet and other transportation is routinely available at military airfields as is additional security provided by a combination of military and local agencies in addition to the Secret Service.

    Marlin Fitzwater, GHWBs press secretary and one tough sob set up his and other White House staffers temporary offices in my hanger at Cherry Point when Papa Bush came and even bought lunch for those of us displaced and inconvenienced by the presidents visit. The Secret Service set up their command bus in our hangar, mobile power generators, satellite antennas and other support equipment immediately outside the hangar and a 50 phone, phone bank on the hangar floor for the White House Press Corps.

    As evidenced by the First Lady and the President routinely taking separate flights and even requiring separate transportation for the royal dog BO the First Family has shown no regard nor respect for the taxpayer, those who have to accommodate them or anyone else.

    Travel expenses for this First Family have according to the White Houses own figures far exceeded those of any previous administration regardless of circumstance.

    The facts and figures provided by the presidents own government tell the story and tell us all we need to know.

  8. Oh, please. The security requirements are the same regardless of the party affiliation of the sitting President.

    Did those of you spouting anti-Obama rhetoric do the same when Shrub caused the same traffic jams?

    I thought not.

  9. Obama has done NOTHING to support Las Vegas or help the economy. His recent visits were not to help the local economy, but to CAMPAIGN for himself! What a joke! Yes, I dislike Obama, but any "objective" person would see that the problems he's caused for Las Vegas far outweighs any benefits his campaigning in the city has done. He should stay out of the city he has slammed during his term....