Year in review: Pilots gain greater access to TFRs

AOPA presses for input in TFR planning process

December 9, 2010

Encouraging progress for general aviation, a few notable reversals, and a lot of learning all around marked 2010 as AOPA worked with government agencies to keep GA traffic flowing in airspace where temporary flight restrictions were in effect.

Sometimes it seemed like the most encouraging steps forward were quickly countered by a setback. But in the end, the year produced record GA access to airspace subject to TFRs—and gave some key officials their first close-up look at GA in action.

AOPA continued working with the numerous government agencies involved in the establishment of TFRs, always striving to find ways to keep GA aloft and businesses operating, while cooperating to create a secure environment for the VIPs that the security agencies protect. The association worked to encourage agencies’ receptiveness to stakeholder participation by GA in the design and implementation of individual TFRs. Additionally, AOPA worked with the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration to devise effective ways to educate pilots about TFRs and improve outreach to pilots in affected areas when a TFR is imposed. There were clear advances on both fronts.

What’s a TFR?

The FAA advisory circular on the subject defines a TFR as “a regulatory action issued via the U.S. Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) system to restrict certain aircraft from operating within a defined area, on a temporary basis, to protect persons or property in the air or on the ground.”
The advisory circular states that when a TFR is created, “restrictions are kept to the minimum area and duration necessary that will address the situation.”

TFRs may be issued for a variety of reasons, from keeping skies over disaster areas or sporting events clear to travel by the president and other parties, the so-called VIP TFR. Seven different regulations may be cited for a TFR’s existence.

Access for GA

Another related bit of terminology pilots will be hearing more of as this effort moves forward is “gateway screening.” In August 2009, while President Barack Obama vacationed in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., screened aircraft were permitted into and out of the inner no-fly zone of the active TFR. It was the first time that security officials had permitted such flights. Pilots could register for waivers on the FAA website.

As 2010 began, TFRs soon made their presence felt. In January, airspace restrictions in Canada in connection with the Winter Olympics also affected a portion of northern Washington state. The FAA, in consultation with Canadian security officials, was able to permit aircraft traveling to airports on the fringe of the U.S. TFR to proceed using set transponder codes. That lifted the burden of filing and activating a flight plan for those flights.

It wasn’t always such a smooth ride. A TFR in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend will go down as a learning experience, as confusion reigned during a five-day presidential visit, with effective times and locations of the TFR changing on multiple occasions. The changes reflected a hectic presidential itinerary; during that period Obama arrived in Chicago, left to inspect the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, returned, and then made a trip to the suburbs for a Memorial Day event. In perhaps the most adverse consequence, word reached AOPA that a medical evacuation flight had been postponed by the TFR. On the positive side, the TSA set up gateway screening portals allowing GA aircraft to continue using Midway Airport.

Stakeholder participation

The Memorial Day TFR in Chicago was so disruptive that AOPA President Craig Fuller wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to note the consequences of the five difficult days. In his letter, he also reminded her that in August 2009, AOPA had requested to participate in the planning process for VIP TFRs. 

“Together we can more effectively develop workable solutions and disseminate critical information to the pilot population. We strongly encourage you to seek stakeholder participation as you plan airspace restrictions related to future VIP movement,” he wrote on June 14.

As if the need for stakeholder participation had not been aptly demonstrated, less than a month after Fuller’s letter, more consequences flowed from a TFR. This time the location was Las Vegas, where for 19 hours of July 8 and 9 a 30-nm-radius TFR shut down access to all three of the city’s airports.  

Fuller had tried to alert officials to the impending shutdown. On July 7, he warned in a second letter to Napolitano that the new restrictions could have serious local consequences, citing an estimated $700,000 loss of commerce from a February 2010 TFR of lesser extent. He again urged that officials look to stakeholder participation to develop alternative procedures when TFRs were planned.

The message was getting through. A few weeks later, Napolitano and TSA Administrator John Pistole met with GA representatives during EAA AirVenture 2010 in Oshkosh, Wis., vowing to keep the dialog on security concerns moving ahead.

This was a major milestone on the journey to TFR coexistence and cooperation on security generally. The officials—who had never previously witnessed the big annual GA event—took the opportunity to announce a streamlined process for non-U.S. registered aircraft flying into the United States.

“This decision demonstrates their commitment to improving the efficiency of the system for all users, and we look forward to working with both agencies to identify additional opportunities for improvement,” said Fuller after the meeting.

The positives continued in August, when Obama made overnight visits to Bar Harbor, Maine, and Chicago—and in both cases, access into the inner ring of the TFRs was available to GA. Obama also returned to Martha’s Vineyard late in the month, and AOPA was greatly encouraged to be able to report to members that record GA access had been achieved, with more than 700 aircraft and 2,000 passengers screened.

Education

Heading into political season in the fall, AOPA worked preemptively with the FAA and security officials to keep pilots aware of the need to stay informed about a potential profusion of TFRs popping up as VIPs crisscrossed the landscape, campaigning for office or appearing on behalf of their party’s candidates.

AOPA and its Airport Support Network volunteers in Hawaii also got busy, opening the needed dialog in anticipation of a possible Obama family holiday visit, building on the good will established the previous year, when tour operators and sky-diving businesses on the fringe of the TFR had received accommodations allowing them to continue limited operations. 

“As we move into a new year, AOPA will continue to press for greater transparency and user input in the planning process for these TFRs. We would also like to sit down with TSA, FAA, and the U.S. Secret Service to establish clear-cut criteria for when screening gateway's will be utilized. The Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) for General Aviation also plans to work together to gather solid information and data on the financial impact these TFRs cost the general aviation community.” said Brittney Miculka, AOPA manager of security and borders.

As the year draws to a close, GA can be encouraged by the results of the working relationships that have been forged. All GA pilots have a role to play, and every transgression—even those perpetrated by the “clueless and harmless,” as one violator described it—has huge potential costs.

So, do your part to stay informed and aware—and see to it that your fellow pilots do the same.