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Tighter FAA Rules Killing the Messengers

Aviation: Pilots who tow banners say the restricted airspace at arenas isn't for security but because ads harm the bottom line of interests such as the NFL.

April 07, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ABOVE MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Fly through these skies and sooner or later you'll spot some special pilots, people who hold themselves up both as heirs of the barnstormers of old and guerrilla warriors of today's economy.

They are the aviators who make a living, or try to, towing banners plugging the $2.99 Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's, two-for-one happy-hour specials at a beach bar, or a TV show on ABC. To vacationing beach-goers, the periodic droning of the planes may be as welcome as ants at a picnic. On the other hand, if you've forgotten how to call home collect, the messages the fliers carry may provide a service.

Since Sept. 11 and the measures hurriedly imposed to prevent another terrorist onslaught from the air, this niche of the U.S. aviation industry has been taking a financial beating.

Tim West, 32, chief pilot of Aerial Sign Co. of Hollywood, Fla., is paid according to how many flights he makes. For three years, he says, he was saving to buy a home, but he has had to "burn up" his nest egg to pay for food and other necessities.

With no message to pull for income, West took a reporter up one afternoon last week in a propeller-driven Piper Super Cub to show the usual route he and other banner-towers fly along South Florida's hotel- and condominium-lined Atlantic Coast. Flying as low as 300 feet, and slowing to the customary sign-pulling speed of 40 mph, pilot and passenger could see manta rays swimming near shore and nudists sunning on Haulover Beach.

"You can't beat the view from the window of my office," West said via the on-board radio, as wind roared in the large opening in the fuselage where a pilot can lean out to check whether the banner is flying properly.

"Most of our members are out of work," said Julian A. Hayes, general counsel for the U.S. Aerial Advertisers Assn., a Tampa-based professional organization that represents the interests of an estimated 600 firms, mostly mom-and-pop operations, that do pull aerial banners. "All fall there was no revenue. Millions of dollars were lost."

At first, the pilots say, the airspace was closed to them after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because of legitimate worries about national security. But they contend that one key restriction--flying over sporting events--remains, and it is not because of homeland defense but because their aggressive style of advertising hurts powerful economic interests, including those of the National Football League and its sponsors.

"What does it cost to put 'Miller' on a scoreboard? $200,000?" asked Jim Goggin, 52, one of West's fellow pilots. "We can tow a banner that says 'Budweiser' around the stadium all season for a lot less."

Deprived of paying work for three months, Goggin said he has been forced to mortgage his condominium.

Jim Butler, owner of Aerial Sign, employs West and Goggin, and he owns and subcontracts so many sign-pulling aircraft nationwide that he can put 90 planes in the air at one time in markets around the country.

In South Florida, he says, "I'm the kingpin." The son of a banner-tower and skywriter, Butler, 58, discovered his lifetime calling when, as a boy, he watched his father write "Pepsi 5 cents" in the sky.

"If you want to rain on somebody's parade, you can do it very easily with an airplane," Butler said. When one of Miami's largest auto dealers holds a major sale, for instance, competitors hire Aerial Sign to circle the dealership with banners promising to beat the price on any car by $500.

"We're renegades," said the ruddy-faced, straight-talking Butler, who relishes the role. "People don't like us, but we're an information source."

Aerial Sign, which has its offices, sign-making shop and maintenance hangars at a small Broward County airport northwest of Miami, has been clobbered since Sept. 11. In December, Butler said, business plummeted to 5% of normal. He laid off employees for two weeks, he said, then put the ground staff on a three- or four-day workweek.

Of late, demand has been improving but still is down 20% to 25%, Butler said. One problem is that advertisers spent less on signs when the number of vacationers coming to Florida dropped. Then there is the issue of NFL games, a major target audience for aerial advertising.

In mid-September, with the nation still reeling from the hijacked airliner attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration banned all aircraft from approaching at low altitude within three miles of "any major professional or collegiate sporting event or any other major open-air assembly of people."

For banner-towers, who earn a significant chunk of their revenue by orbiting baseball and football games and other sports contests, the FAA notice spelled economic ruin, and they fought it.

The U.S. Aerial Advertisers Assn. has filed a petition, pending in a federal appeals court in Atlanta, so its members can fly as they did before.

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