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How the president’s presence impacts New Castle Airport

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NEW CASTLE – President Joe Biden’s well-documented history of commuting to and from work in Washington – recently upgraded from Amtrak to Air Force One – has focused a bright spotlight on Wilmington-New Castle Airport (ILG), yet the facility’s long-term outlook remains quite murky.

Marine One has become a frequent presence at Delaware National Guard Air Base in New Castle as the president commutes from the White House often to his longtime Greenville home. | PHOTO BY MANDEL NGAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Still up in the air is who after 2025 will actually be administering and operating the airport, which is owned by New Castle County and shared with the Delaware Air National Guard. Also unclear are the perennial questions of whether Frontier Airlines will continue to fly – and to what destinations – and whether any other commercial airlines will return to the facility in the near future. In the meantime, the county has already been receiving preliminary bids for managing the facility, which is currently operated by the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA).

For the present, it has been an eventful year for the 80-year-old-airport. From the time Delaware’s first president was sworn into office on Jan. 20 until Aug. 12, he and first lady Jill Biden have journeyed from the White House to Wilmington 16 times on either the smaller version of Air Force One through Joint Base Andrews or directly from the White House lawn via the Marine One helicopter.

“I was airport manager when Biden was vice president, so I had an idea of what to expect,” airport manager Benjamin Clendaniel said. “Last November, I also talked with the people at the airport in Fort Lauderdale which President Trump used.”

Those logistics of a presidential journey to Wilmington are somewhat complex. The Secret Service is in charge of travel arrangements, and as soon as it knows Biden’s schedule, it alerts the airport, in most cases a few days in advance. Closer to flight time, the Federal Aviation Administration is in charge of alerting airports and pilots through a system called NOTAMS, or notices to airmen, which advises them of temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) surrounding the president.

President Joe Biden salutes as he steps off Marine One upon arrival at Delaware National Guard Air Base on June 18 in New Castle. | PHOTO BY OLIVIER

“When the president is about 20 minutes out,” Clendaniel said, “we put a ‘ramp freeze’ which means that nothing moves on the airport until he has landed and left.”

The Delaware Air National Guard (DANG), whose 166th Airlift Wing is located in its own section of the airport, is briefly in charge of the president once he lands. Air Force One taxis from the runway to the DANG area, while Marine One lands directly on the DANG apron. Clendaniel said a V22 Osprey may bring in additional equipment, and two Coast Guard helicopters are available to provide “enforcement” if needed.

The headache comes, however, after the president leaves by motorcade. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the TFR was developed with two or more rings of restriction – an outer ring of about 30 nautical miles and a more-restrictive inner ring that follows the president wherever he goes. When he is located at his home on Barley Mill Road, private aircraft are not permitted to operate within 12 nautical miles below 18,000 feet.

“We’re about 5 miles away, so it applies to us as well as smaller airports in the area,” Clendaniel explained. “We have about 225 private aircraft based here and may on average have 175 takeoffs and landing a day.”

As a workaround for this dilemma, the Secret Service, FAA and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) developed a gateway program to somewhat ease the bottleneck, although no private aircrafts are permitted to move within those 12 miles the evening Biden arrives. But the gateway program does permit air traffic from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on days he is in Wilmington under tight regulations.

A special hangar has been set up at the airport where TSA inspects planes and passengers before they take off. Those wanting to fly into Wilmington, however, must first be TSA-cleared through one of only two airports – Dulles in Virginia or the Allentown, Pa., airport – before leaving for Wilmington.

As restrictive – and necessary – as these measures are for Wilmington, they pose a major hardship for a handful of local airports which are completely closed whenever President Biden is on the ground or in the air locally.

“We have to totally shut down,” said Jonathan Martin, aviation manager at New Garden Flying Field in Chester County, Pa. “We have 130 base tenants, and it affects each of them, and 90% of our flight school training is on weekends. We also were forced to cancel our annual air show because we didn’t know which weekend the president would be in town.”

Temporary flight restrictions of 12 and 20 miles are put into effect over the president’s home, disrupting local airports’ businesses. | DBT GRAPHIC/

More locally, Summit Airport in southern New Castle County is outside the 12-mile ring.

Surprisingly, DANG has been little affected by the presidential visits, mainly helping with the logistics of the White House Press Corps, which travels by bus to Wilmington or via Ospreys when coming from other events.

“They set up an area near where the president gets off the plane or helicopter with their cameras and satellite dishes,” said Mitchell Topal, the DANG Wing’s public affairs specialist.

Home to about 200 full-time service personnel and a training facility for about 900 more, DANG will be completing capital projects in the next few years, including building a new fuel dock and renovating the headquarters building, among others, according to Topal.

All this will go ahead regardless of who manages the commercial part of the airport. New Castle County in 1995 signed a 30-agreement with DRBA, a bi-state compact with New Jersey that manages bridges and ferries in addition to five regional airports, to take over Wilmington Airport. Under the agreement, the county was required to give a five-year notice to DRBA by last summer whether it was renewing or going out for bids, which it did.

“We sent out RFIs [requests for information] this year, and the level of interest was higher than we expected,” County Executive Matt Meyer told DBT. “When we closed the RFIs on July 9, we had five responses from the U.S. and Europe. All have substantial experience in airport management. But we’re also open to DRBA bidding.”

But Jim Salmon, DRBA spokesperson, said the agency did not intend to bid. Further, Salmon said, “Before there is any change in 2025, either the county or whoever takes over management will have to pay us $50 million in unamortized debt. The airport was in bad shape when we took it over in ‘95, and the county just wanted us to take it off their hands. The airport is much improved and drastically different today.”

And if that million dollars isn’t paid?

“We will continue to operate the airport,” Salmon said.

Depending on what happens in presidential politics, the drama of airport politics in 2025 might be played out before a White House Press Corps or else shuttled to the back pages.

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