Bob Dobry can fly his banner-towing planes over Magic Mountain, or the racetrack at Santa Anita, or the crowded sand at Laguna Beach. But he can’t fly over Disneyland.
That’s because the Walt Disney Co. won passage of federal legislation that led the Federal Aviation Administration to prohibit flights over the entertainment giant’s theme parks in Anaheim and Orlando, Fla.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, flights under 3,000 feet have been prohibited over power plants, dams, major league baseball games, NFL and college football games, and auto races sanctioned by NASCAR. But the flights are permitted over every amusement park in America -- except Disneyland and Disney World.
Disney said in a prepared statement that its sole motivation for seeking the no-fly zones, which was first reported earlier this week in Orlando Sentinel, was “the safety and the enjoyment of our guests.”
But banner pilots here and in Florida say Disney sought the ban because it didn’t want aerial advertising over its parks, not because of any threat of terrorism.
“Mickey and Goofy don’t own that airspace,” said Dobry, who owns an eight-plane banner-towing business based at Long Beach Municipal Airport.
“You tell me: Why we can fly over Knott’s Berry Farm or Raging Waters or Magic Mountain, but not Disneyland?” said Dobry.
“Disney tried for years to stop us, but they couldn’t,” said Joseph Kittinger, who towed banners over Disney World before the ban. “Now they’ve taken advantage of 9/11.”
Kittinger said advertisers like the exposure to Disney’s parks “because there are a lot of tourists walking around down there and looking up.” He said his business has dropped sharply since the ban took effect.
Kittinger and Dobry’s concerns about the Disney ban were echoed by the 390,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. The group released a statement cautioning against “using national security as a ruse to place limits on general aviation for reasons that have little to do with terrorist threats.”
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, blanket temporary flight restrictions were issued by the FAA, the agency responsible for regulating flights over the United States.
As time passed and the threat of aerial terrorism was perceived to have diminished, the restrictions were relaxed. Waivers were issued allowing banner-towers like Dobry and Kittinger to resume their flights.
“We’re not a threat,” Dobry said. “Small planes can’t carry enough explosives to do any harm.”
Kittinger says the no-fly zones wouldn’t stop a terrorist, anyway.
“They could never get a military interceptor up fast enough to stop a terrorist’s plane,” he said. “But no one has the courage to say that.”
Three months ago, Congress approved a 3,000-page spending bill. Buried deep inside it was Section 352, a few short paragraphs that extended post-Sept. 11 flight restrictions, rescinded ban waivers for pilots and prohibited the issuance of new waivers in other than exceptional circumstances. It is not yet clear who in Congress added the paragraphs.
The paragraphs make no mention of Disney, Disneyland or Disney World.
Nonetheless, on March 18, the FAA issued two notices to aviators. One prohibited flights under 3,000 feet within a 3.3-mile radius of Disney World. The other did the same at Disneyland.
Planes that violate the notices could be intercepted by military aircraft and their pilots could be subject to severe discipline.
Two days after the notices were issued, Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, wrote Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, saying he wanted to “clarify congressional intent” regarding Section 352.
“It is the intent of the conferees to provide protection from certain overflights only for” the two Disney parks, Shelby wrote.
Mineta could not be reached for comment. But a Shelby aide, Virginia Largay, said Tuesday that the senator wrote the letter because of concerns over security risks at the parks.
“Sen. Shelby agreed with a number of his colleagues in the Senate and House that these restrictions were necessary and appropriate,” Largay said.
If Shelby thought the matter had been clarified, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., a Republican from Oklahoma, was not so sure.
Citing “confusion on this issue,” Istook wrote Mineta on April 30, saying he wanted to review the way the whole thing was handled.
“Obviously, the intent of a conference committee cannot be clarified unless both the House and Senate are in agreement on the issue,” Istook wrote.
It also remained unclear exactly who told the FAA to include the two theme parks in the ban.
The Disney flight ban has come under criticism from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley as well.
Earlier this year, Daley lobbied extensively for a sweeping flight restriction over his city, only to be turned down by the FAA.
“Now, think of that,” he told reporters from the Chicago Tribune in March. “Mickey and Minnie have it. I mean, I can’t believe that. They get it first before we get it.”