Obama’s three-day stay pinches pockets of helicopter tour operators

For Grand Canyon helicopter tour operator Nigel Turner, there’s no debate about President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Southern Nevada.

“We lost a lot of money,” he said, estimating that his Heli USA Airways lost $60,000 each day the president slept at Lake Las Vegas.

Grand Canyon helicopter tour companies such as Turner’s face flight restrictions whenever a president comes to the area. Typically those restrictions ground their helicopters for a matter of hours and sometimes overnight.

But this week’s presidential visit was the longest stay by a sitting president in Southern Nevada. Obama spent the time in the crucial swing state preparing for today’s debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“Why couldn’t he have gone to Camp David to research for his debate?” Turner said.

Because of the extended visit, officials from the Secret Service and Federal Aviation Administration met with the tour companies last week to offer an alternative to grounding their helicopters.

The plan moved the eight tour companies’ operations to the Jean Airport, where the FAA set up a temporary air traffic control tower to ensure safe aircraft operations. The FAA also allowed two companies, including Turner’s, to fly from McCarran for their night tours over the Strip.

“We worked very hard to maintain the highest possible levels of security while minimizing impacts on pilots, air tour operators and the rest of the aviation community,” the FAA said in a statement.

The FAA plan also allowed private pilots to fly from McCarran, Henderson and Boulder City airports if they followed certain procedures and stayed out of the airspace near McCarran and Lake Las Vegas.

Turner objected to the plan, which allowed private aircraft, but not his helicopters, to fly within a 30-mile radius of Lake Las Vegas. He also objected to running operations out of Jean, citing worries about safety with having so many helicopters flying in and out of the rarely used airport on unfamiliar flight routes to the Grand Canyon.

Turner chose to shut down Las Vegas operations instead of risking the safety of his crews and customers, he said.

“It would be devastating, not only to our industry but for the whole town, if we had a fatal crash so Obama could practice for his speech,” Turner said.

The other seven tour companies have been flying from Jean. Messages left with several of those companies were not returned by deadline.

Turner said his business takes a hit whenever a president comes to town, and potential customers are left with bad memories. The flight restrictions especially hurt business from international tourists, who usually don’t have time to rearrange their itineraries to reschedule a tour of the Grand Canyon, he said.

Heli USA Airways is still offering Grand Canyon tours leaving from its ranch in Arizona, but that is a two-hour drive away, he said.

Turner also is still offering the night tours over the Strip, but those have seen a slight drop in business too because customers must be screened by the Transportation Security Administration while the president is in town, he said.

Many customers decide the 10-minute flight isn’t worth the inconvenience of the security screening, he said.

The bottom line is the flight restrictions hurt Nevada’s tourism industry, he said.

As a former British military pilot, Turner said he understands the need for security for the president. But he hopes a better solution can be found before the next visit, which probably will be soon given Nevada’s position as a battleground state.

“If they want to pay me not to fly, maybe that’s a solution,” Turner said.

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