Banners banned at commercial airport
By LISA GREENE
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001
These planes swoop low, 10 feet above the ground, to grab their banners, then climb quickly into the sky, as advertising for everything from seafood restaurants to adult bookstores flaps behind them.
"It's a very intricate maneuver," said Susan Lane Hardman of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. "Airplanes aren't really made to drag something . . . but they do it very safely."
Maybe so. But Pinellas County officials don't want anybody doing it at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. County commissioners passed a resolution banning banner towing at the airport two weeks ago.
Now the operator who wants to pick up banners at the airport is threatening legal action.
"They can't do things like this," said William M. Bruckner Jr., owner of Florida Aerial Advertising. "They're violating my civil rights."
Bruckner said he plans to complain to the Federal Aviation Authority to force Pinellas to allow him to fly. He also plans to file suit, he said.
Under FAA rules, the airport must allow banner plane operations unless they pose a safety hazard, spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.
Two FAA officials, including Sandra L. Bathon, the FAA's air traffic manager at the airport, have said banner towing would be dangerous there. Larger planes would be delayed by the slow banner planes, increasing congestion, Bathon wrote to airport officials.
She also said that air traffic control is "especially complex" there because the airfield is designed so that each runway crosses two other runways. Banner pickups would distract controllers from other planes, she said.
In the past five years, eight people have been killed in banner plane accidents. Locally, a banner plane crashed into Old Tampa Bay in 1998, and in 1997, a 6-foot-long metal pole broke from a banner and crashed through the eaves of a St. Petersburg house. Nobody was hurt in either incident. In the case of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport, the FAA hasn't done an official safety review to determine whether the planes could fly safely, Bergen said. That's what Pinellas should have asked for before the county took action, said Bruckner's lawyer, Michael A. Moulis of Fort Lauderdale.
"If the FAA had done a true study . . . and determined it was unsafe, we would go away," said Moulis, a former FAA attorney.
Bruckner said airport officials are trying to help his competitor, Advertising Air Force, which operates from Albert Whitted Municipal Airport in St. Petersburg. Moulis also said that airport officials' motives are personal.
"They're discriminating against an individual because they don't like him," Moulis said.
Bruckner has a colorful history in Pinellas. He's known for flying protest banners from his planes, sometimes with personal messages. His company was evicted from Albert Whitted in the 1980s. During the legal fight that followed, Bruckner flew a banner calling an assistant city attorney a liar.
Bruckner has flown several other "aerial editorials" since.
But Steve Nash, assistant airport director, said those incidents don't worry him.
"I've heard about those stories," Nash said. "But everything we did was all because of safety."
Monty Burgess, director at Albert Whitted Municipal Airport, said Nash's concerns seem reasonable.
"Each airport is unique," he said. "But most banner tow operations are more suited for small airports that aren't really commercial service."
Not being able to fly out of St. Petersburg-Clearwater leaves Bruckner with few options. He has a hangar at the airport. His planes take off there, then fly to a private airfield in Manatee County to pick up their banners, Bruckner said.
Albert Whitted has one banner plane operator, and Bruckner said there's not enough room for another. In Hillsborough County, the aviation authority doesn't allow banner pickups at any of its airports. TIA is too busy, said Hardman, who is deputy director of operations -- general aviation. The other three airports don't have control towers, and Hardman said the complicated pickups should have controllers helping.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks