Could Trump ban planes flying over Mar-a-Lago?

Posted at 5:55 AM, May 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-20 10:42:49-04

PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- There are many questions about what Donald Trump would do if elected president, so let's add another: Would he ban planes leaving Palm Beach International Airport from flying over his prized Mar-a-Lago Club?

Trump has tried for two decades through the Federal Aviation Administration and the courts to force departing airliners to turn before reaching the historic and exclusive 17-acre estate, which is 2.5 miles east of the airport's primary runway.

An Associated Press analysis of airport data between late April and early May found the majority of planes flew directly over or near Mar-a-Lago, some taking off or landing at an altitude between 500 and 2,000 feet. On a typical day, for example, the AP tracked scores of planes flying over Trump's resort before heading north or continuing east.

The presumptive Republican nominee charges in his current lawsuit that the jetliners' roar disturbs his members, who pay $100,000 initiation fees and $14,000 annual dues. He also says the vibrations and jet exhaust damage the fragile Dorian stone, antique Spanish tiles and Cuban roof tiles used by cereal tycoon Marjorie Merriweather Post and her husband, financier E.F. Hutton, to build the 126-room, 10,000-square-foot mansion in the mid-1920s, a decade before the airport opened and three decades before passenger jets took flight.

While the legal games are being played, if elected, Trump could play the ultimate trump card. As president, he could order the FAA to shift Palm Beach International's takeoff and landing patterns to avoid Mar-a-Lago. But would he? It is a possibility airport manager and Trump nemesis Bruce Pelly raised in a 2011 interview with The Palm Beach Post during an earlier noise fight where the airport refused to bend.

"The solution for him is to get elected president," Pelly said. Through a spokeswoman, Pelly recently declined to comment.

Trump, in a recent interview with the AP, said he wouldn't use the presidency to settle the issue.

"I would stay out of it," he said. But he said the airport should fan out departing planes, having some turn north or south almost immediately instead of having them head straight east. That, he said, would allow planes to take off with less time in between and turn one runway into the equivalent of three.

Trump has long held particular scorn for Pelly, singling him out in his latest lawsuit and calling him "the worst airport manager in the U.S." in a signed 2011 letter to the FAA obtained by the AP through a public records request. He even criticizes him for infrastructure projects unrelated to the noise.

"Frankly, Bruce Pelly has done a horrible job," Trump told the AP. "He built a road system that has made it harder for people get into the airport. It cost the taxpayers $500 million and is extremely impractical."

Sid McGuirk, a lawyer and an associate professor of air traffic management at Florida's Embry-Riddle University, said Trump as president could order the FAA to direct planes to avoid Mar-a-Lago, "but, boy, the backlash." Changes to takeoff and landing patterns require safety and noise studies and allow time for public comment, he said. Circumventing the process by executive order would lead to congressional investigations and lawsuits by those now underneath the departing planes, he said.

"Would it be worth it? It would be on the front page of The New York Times and Washington Post for weeks," McGuirk said. Of course, he added, anytime President Trump visited Mar-a-Lago, the airspace would become a no-fly zone as is anywhere a president visits, but those are usually temporary.

Trump purchased Mar-a-Lago - "The Greatest Mansion Ever Built," according to its website - from Post's foundation in 1985 for $10 million and renovated it. After using the estate as a residence for 10 years, he opened it as a club in 1995. The property now boasts 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, a 20,000-square-foot ballroom, tennis and croquet courts and three bomb shelters.

With buildings totaling 77,000 square feet, it has an appraised market value of $20.3 million, according to county tax records. That number is artificially low primarily because Trump signed away its development rights to the National Trust, lowering his property taxes. Otherwise, Mar-a-Lago's value would easily be $60 million to $80 million, said county property appraiser Gary Nikolits.

Trump filed his first noise lawsuit against Palm Beach County, which owns the airport, in 1995. It was settled a year later with the county agreeing to lease him the land where he built Trump International Golf Club. But the truce did not hold.

Trump filed a lawsuit against the county in 2010 to block preliminary plans to add a second east-west runway, telling the FAA in a letter that the proposal was "a deeply embarrassing performance, which has already wasted millions of dollars of public funds. The consultant who did it should be fired."

Responding to Trump's letter, airport attorney Peter Kirsch told an FAA administrator in a 2011 email he would call him, adding, "You might not be surprised to learn that most of what Mr. Trump states in the letter is not accurate." The lawsuit was withdrawn that year.

Trump sued the county again last year, alleging that Pelly pressures FAA controllers to direct jetliners over his property in retaliation for his earlier lawsuits.

"Pelly is seeking revenge by attacking Mar-a-Lago from the air," the lawsuit said.

That lawsuit, which seeks $100 million in damages, is unlikely to be resolved before next year. Between the legalese, it sometimes reads like a travel brochure.

"Whether dining on the patio, using the outdoor pool, using the beach facilities, playing tennis, or hosting an outdoor wedding by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean or Lake Worth, the only property to front on both, the once serene and tranquil ambience of Mar-a-Lago is essential to the Estate, just as it was in Ms. Post's era."