FAA restricts airspace for Orioles-Cuba game

Rules to force most craft to stay above 1,500 feet

exiles say it limits speech

May 01, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Tightening the already restrictive security for Monday's Orioles-Cuba game at Camden Yards, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed special restrictions on the airspace around the stadium.

Between 1 p.m. and midnight Monday, air traffic within three nautical miles of the stadium will have to stay above 1,500 feet, said FAA spokesman William Shumann.

The normal restriction in that area -- which is handled by air traffic controllers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- is 1,000 feet. News media, police and medical service helicopters are exempt from the temporary flight restriction, Shumann said.

The announcement disappointed some law enforcement officials, who had wanted an outright ban on aircraft -- a common practice when President Clinton visits the ballpark. Clinton will not attend the game, nor will there be any official government delegation.

As anti-Castro Cuban exiles continued to criticize the game this week, some officials admitted to thinking of "Black Sunday," a 1977 film about an attempt by terrorists to use a bomb on the Goodyear Blimp to kill everyone attending the Super Bowl.

Major League Baseball security officials had requested restrictions after a pilot for Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue tried to drop leaflets on the game in Havana on March 28; the FAA helped to stop him.

Baltimore police had worried that the vast number of media and police planes, combined with at least a half-dozen banner-towing aircraft hired by Cuban exiles to display anti-Castro messages, created the potential for a deadly mid-air collision over a crowded section of the city.

In putting the restrictions in place, the FAA noted a request from a top official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI officials in Washington did not return phone calls. A spokesman here said, "We want to take every precaution."

"All the law enforcement people involved in this were unanimous in their recommendation that the air space be closed for safety reasons," said Baltimore Police Col. Bert Shirey. "The restriction is better than nothing."

Cuban exiles and U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey who is supporting protests of the game, immediately blasted the flight restriction as an attack on free speech.

Exile groups, including the Cuban American National Foundation, have hired planes with banners from across the region to display slogans such as "Cuba Si, Castro No" during the game. The rate for a banner airplane is $350 an hour at Condor Aviation, one of the companies approached by the Cubans.

"It's an unprecedented restriction of First Amendment rights without any validation of any security concern," Menendez said. "When did a banner calling for freedom or urging people to seek political asylum become a national security risk?"

Banner airplane companies said the restriction would probably not prevent them from flying. Cathy Gathmann at Baltimore Air Park, which has had its three banner airplanes hired by exiles, said the altitude restriction would force them to switch from 5-foot-tall letters to 7-foot-tall ones.

"If you have 7-foot letters, it's no big deal," she said.

But exiles say they saw the restriction as part of a broader effort to silence them.

The Orioles have limited ticket sales to two per buyer to reduce the risk of protests. They are enforcing a strict ban on banners, flags and musical instruments despite calls from local Latino leaders for more flexibility. After meetings with protesters, Orioles officials are limiting demonstrations to two areas within a block of the ballpark: along Howard Street and Camden Street near the ballpark for anti-Castro protesters, along Paca Street for the anti-embargo contingent.

Even before the airspace restrictions were announced, the Miami Herald, reflecting exiles' views, editorialized: "In what country is Baltimore's Camden Yards?

"Is it in America, home of free speech, or in Cuba, where gag laws ban any expression other than the party line?"

The Herald added: "What's next, no hot dogs?"

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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