A Banner Year

First published in Baltimore Magazine

Cathy Gathmann’s clients just love a good traffic jam.
The owner of Phoenix Air Ads, a banner-towing outfit based at Baltimore Air Park, says business is up even during the week these days, with her pilots being paid to track down what she calls “captive audiences.” Her banner-towing planes fly the beltway loop during rush hour with orders to circle traffic jams. “Those people aren’t going anywhere,” says Gathmann. “It’s perfect.”
But airlifting her media messages to the masses hasn’t always been so easy. Gathmann remembers Preakness 1996 all too well. Phoenix Air Ads was in its first year and she had a full schedule of customers who had hired her to fly banners over the racetrack.
The trouble was, the weather wouldn’t cooperate. She watched her day’s profits dissolve in the drizzle and fog.
Happily, business has taken off since that inauspicious beginning. Now in its fourth year, Phoenix Air Ads has doubled its sales each year to about $110,000 in 1998. On a good day, the fleet of four planes flies as many as 20 different messages; each plane slowly performs an airborne ballet over an event for an hour before returning to Baltimore Air Park (adjacent to I-95) to drop the old message and to snag a new one.
Much of Phoenix Air’s business is tied to the baseball and football schedules. The dates of the Oriole’s home games are highlighted on the large, wall-mounted calendar in the office, and the clients are already booked: restaurants, radio stations, Internet providers, and others.
“The Preakness, Artscape, county fairs all mean business for us,” says Gathmann, who owns the business with her husband Jay. “Last year, the Bay Bridge Walk was the same day as the start of the Whitbread Race. That was a really big day for us.”
For customers, it’s also affordable. Prices for a one-hour tow of a simple message start at $350. Tally the number of stationary truck drivers stuck at Security Boulevard on a Friday afternoon, and that’s pennies per person to deliver the message.
There’s no banner-towers’ association, but Phoenix Air, Condor Aviation, and other smaller operators keep in touch and sometimes share equipment.
“There are two types of people who get into banner-towing. One is a company like us that runs as a full-time business,” says Gathmann. “The other is the guy who figures that this is a great way to pay for his flying hobby. He doesn’t realize everything that’s involved and usually doesn’t last very long.”
One factor is the inventory. A hangar at the airport is filled with the equipment Gathmann’s staff needs to build and tow the banners. Racks of nylon letters five and seven feet tall stand 20 deep along one wall. Tow ropes are coiled in buckets. “Billboards” made of rip-stop nylon are stacked in neat rolls on the floor. The letters alone are worth a combined $30,000.
While most of the messages are flying commercials, about 7 percent of Phoenix Air Ads’ missions are personal messages.
And recently, she tried to pull a political message, too, but ran into some unexpected flak. Gathmann’s firm was hired by Cuban-American opponents of Fidel Castro to pull three anti-Castro banners over Camden Yards during the recent visit by the Cuban baseball team. But when air traffic controllers learned what the banners said (“Cuba Si; Castro No”), the ordered the plane out of the airspace. Banner-towing firms that faced similar problems the same day say it was an unconstitutional effort to censure divisive political statements during the game.
“I don’t blame the controllers,” Gathmann told a newspaper at the time. “Somebody was pulling the strings.”