Knowing President Barack Obama's visit would mean tight air restrictions over Las Vegas, Sundance Helicopters put together a plan to keep hundreds of tourists flying to the Grand Canyon for a bird's-eye tour: use the Boulder City airport rather than McCarran International Airport.
Instead, the president's Southern Nevada swing today and Friday will shut down Sundance for 20 hours, along with every other helicopter and small-plane tour operator that flies out of the Las Vegas region, causing direct losses of $500,000 to $750,000, tour companies estimate.
The negative economic hit on the Las Vegas air tour industry is just one of the costs associated with this presidential visit. The cost of White House trips can include everything from the price of flying Air Force One to the expense of extra security, police and traffic, resulting in a six-figure price tag, according to rough government estimates. Beyond the costs, business leaders note the benefits to the local community where the president and his entourage are housed and fed, not to mention the international publicity.
"I was prepared for a major inconvenience," said Kurt Barton, director of operations for Sundance, which tours the Grand Canyon and the Las Vegas Strip and expects 300 to 400 customers to be affected. "I wasn't prepared to be shut down with no explanation. This caught us by surprise."
The Secret Service imposed the stricter, 30-mile radius no-fly zone for tour operators, although officials wouldn't say why the limits are tougher than during Obama's first presidential visit to Las Vegas in May, as well as during visits by President George W. Bush. Officials usually don't discuss specific security measures or possible threats, though Las Vegas in the past has been cited as a potential terrorism target.
Nigel Turner, president of Heli USA, said his company will have to cancel tours for 180 reserved passengers unless the Secret Service and the FAA ease tour restrictions to a 10- to 12-mile radius of the president as in past White House visits. Turner called Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, who will accompany Obama on his visit, and asked the senator's office to try to get restrictions changed.
"I think it's very hypocritical to come here and talk about jobs and improving the tourism economy and then do something like this that will just devastate the tour operators," Turner said.
Turner also said he resents Obama attending a $1 million fundraiser for the Democratic National Party tonight while tour operators are hurt by his visit.
On Friday, Obama will have two official events: a town hall meeting at Green Valley High School in Henderson and then a speech to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to discuss his efforts to boost the sagging economy.
Vince Alberta, vice president of public affairs for the authority, said the group is sympathetic to the tour operators who will lose a lot of cash and customers over two days. In the long run, he said, he thinks Obama's second presidential visit will be good for tourism and the economy.
"We have the president of the United States holding a small-business meeting with several hundred business and community leaders in Las Vegas," Alberta said, noting the city hosts 20,000 conventions, meetings and trade shows each year.
"That sends a tremendously powerful message to private business and the public sector in the United States and throughout the world," he added. "It reinforces the point that if you want to get business done, you come to Las Vegas. Vegas means business."
At least one company is hoping to profit directly from Obama's visit by making light of the two times in the past year that the president has put his foot in his mouth about Las Vegas, saying it's not a good idea for corporations or Americans to throw away money here during economic hard times.
The First Food & Bar inside the Palazzo plans to offer a new specialty drink, the O'bama Slammer, during a happy hour scheduled from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday and through the weekend. Restaurant manager Joe Timm said the drink is a presidential take on the Alabama Slammer. Its ingredients include Southern Comfort, Di Saronno, orange juice, sloe gin and a bit of grenadine.
"We're doing it 'cause he keeps slamming us," Timm said. "We thought we'd throw him a cute little rib back. I don't know his deal. Maybe he can tell people not to come to Disneyland instead.
"It's definitely not a political action," Timm added. "It's us saying, 'Jeez, lay off our city.' "
During Obama's visit, different airspace restrictions will be in force between 5:45 p.m. today, when he's scheduled to land at McCarran, and 1:45 p.m. Friday, when he's set to depart.
Within a radius between 10 and 30 miles from McCarran depending on circumstances, private pilots will be able to fly into and out of airports, except tour operations, and only if they comply with certain conditions, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Pilots must have flight plans, must be talking to air traffic controllers and must be using transponders unique to each aircraft, which provide controllers with data on the type of aircraft, altitude, airspeed and destination.
The following operations will not be allowed within the 30-mile restricted area during all of Obama's visit: sightseeing air tours, flight training, practice instrument approaches, aerobatic flight, glider operations, parachute operations, ultralight flights, hang gliding, balloon operations, agriculture/crop dusting, animal population control flight operations, banner towing operations, model aircraft operations, model rocketry and unmanned aircraft system flights.
The White House didn't comment, referring calls to the Secret Service, which didn't return calls.
During past presidential visits, helicopter and small-plane tour operators could shift flight operations to Boulder City, Henderson and North Las Vegas, according to tour operators.
On the ground, Las Vegas police spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said the department won't incur additional costs by covering Obama's visit. She said the financially strapped department will be able to skirt the costs through shift and scheduling changes.
Even if the visit did cost the department money, she said, the department wouldn't be able to bill anyone for the costs. "When we have dignitary protection, we have to pay for that," she said.
A Nevada Highway Patrol spokesman said the department won't know the final cost of Obama's visit until after it's over and employees have submitted any overtime requests for covering it.
Las Vegas police said the route Obama is expected to take will not be released, although motorists should expect delays near the sites he is expected to visit, including the Aria at CityCenter.
It's difficult to calculate costs of individual trips as the White House does not publicize the size of the president's Secret Service retinue or the number of aides accompanying him.
"Each trip has a lot of variables," said Jill Farrell, a spokeswoman for Judicial Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group.
When a trip is for an official function, taxpayers foot the bill for the food and lodging of the president's group as well as costs associated with motorcades, car rentals and incidental expenses, according to the Congressional Research Service. Because Obama's trip to Las Vegas will include a political fundraiser to benefit the Democratic National Committee, the DNC probably will be charged a pro-rated portion of the costs for that event.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the most costly component of presidential travel is the operation of Air Force One, the state-of-the-art Boeing 747 specially equipped with security and telecommunications equipment that allows Obama to perform his duties while in the air.
A Government Accountability Office study in 2000, citing estimates by the Air Force, put the cost of operating Air Force One at $56,800 per flight hour. In today's dollars that amounts to $67,400.
According to the Air Force, the presidential plane can travel 630 mph. At that rate, it would take Obama 57 minutes to fly from Denver, where he's stopping before his visit here today, to Las Vegas, at an estimated cost of about $64,000.
A flight from Las Vegas to Andrews Air Force Base outside the nation's capital the next day, at an estimated three hours and 20 minutes nonstop at Air Force One speeds, would cost an estimated $224,700.
Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault and writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919.