Phoenix Silver: The LAX Traffic Tie-Up Explained

Whenever the President or Vice President visits a busy metropolitan area, editors ought to make sure they assign a writer to cover the inevitable travel delays that result from the special handling accorded to the entourage. Vice President Biden's latest trip to Los Angeles has produced a plethora of pity-inducing stories about travelers being delayed for as much as four hours because their planes were not allowed to take off.

Like President Clinton's famous LAX tarmac haircut, these stories acquire credibility almost instantly. But they are likely very exaggerated. The Secret Service footprint can be large, at times, but agents have taken steps to reduce the inconvenience caused by the arrival and departure of major protectees. The Service has changed quite a few of its procedures over the years and the presidential and vice presidential protective entourages have grown. But that, in and of itself, has little effect on what goes on at airports.

Here's what generally tends to happen:

For every Phoenix Banner (POTUS) or Phoenix Silver (VPOTUS) arrival, the Secret Service agent stationed in the air traffic control tower asks a controller to initiate a ramp freeze about 10 minutes or so prior to the VIP's arrival. Sometimes the ramp freeze lasts longer, but usually it's just 10 minutes. Airplanes already making their approaches to the airport can land, but all vehicular and plane traffic on the tarmac is frozen in place. No one moves; no plane leaves the gates.

Then the plane arrives, taxis to a special area of the airport, and powers down. The protectee deplanes and moves to the cars in the motorcade. The motorcade loads and departs. And then the agent manning the security room at the airport announces on a secure frequency:  "All Posts Discontinue." At that point, the agent in the tower ends the ramp freeze and normal airport operations resume.

At most, this process takes about 20 to 25 minutes. For the Secret Service, the transition from portal to portal is when the protectee is most vulnerable. This is when the airport is frozen. They vary their procedures depending upon the airport and the threat level, but they're pretty good at getting their main guys in and out very quickly. It's in the Secret Service's interest to get protectees into the secure package as quickly as possible.

Now -- given how tightly the FAA and the airlines schedule arrivals and departures, it's inevitable that a 20 minute ramp freeze at one of the nation's busiest airports can produce a cascade effect; a plane that can't take off on time loses a slot at its terminal airport, so it's delayed until FAA traffic managers can make sure that it has a gate when it lands. 

But these delays are no different than delays caused by high winds, or by lightning, or by thunderstorms, or by overcrowding. 

It's ridiculous to blame Biden for simply being Vice President ... for being part of the chain of command, for requiring protection and an entourage. The real culprit -- the ultimate culprit -- is our insatiable demand for air travel and the industry/government's inability to build infrastructure to meet that demand in a way that allows for flexibility.