Complex presidential TFRs warrant careful planning

June 3, 2010

When the president traveled in the years immediately following 9/11, large sections of airspace could shut out general aviation for days on end. Now, a system of security screenings, gateway airports, and restrictions grants GA pilots increased access to an area during the president’s extended stay. But, as many pilots experienced last weekend in Chicago, the procedures for traveling within a TFR may be complex, and notams may change with little advance warning—and recent violations of the presidential TFR over Chicago underscore the importance of careful preflight planning.

The Chicago TFR changed at times over the weekend based on the president’s travels—he left for Louisiana at one point and later traveled within the Chicago region—and several conscientious pilots called AOPA to find out more about the changes so they could successfully navigate the area. AOPA has worked with the FAA, TSA, and Secret Service to allow greater access to airspace during the president’s visits and is trying to get involved in the advanced planning for presidential TFRs to provide suggestions on how to reduce confusion and mitigate the impact on GA. AOPA requested participation in the airspace working groups after last year’s Martha’s Vineyard TFR and will write again asking for stakeholder participation.

“We continue to communicate and work with the FAA, TSA, and Secret Service, so that they understand the impact these TFRs have on general aviation. While AOPA would like to see TFRs eliminated, pilots must check notams carefully and do their part to comply with the current TFR process,” AOPA Manager of Security and Borders Brittney Miculka said. “A few accidental violations could hurt the industry’s efforts to demonstrate that the airspace should remain open.”

The TFRs established shortly after 9/11 shut GA out of large sections of airspace during presidential visits; since then, the FAA and Secret Service have taken steps to mitigate the impact on local operations. Last summer, AOPA and the FAA worked out gateway airports to allow operations to and from Martha’s Vineyard, where the president’s family was vacationing for an extended period of time. When the president was vacationing in Hawaii over New Year’s, the TFR included a small cutout to allow for flight training at one airport. While the president’s family was in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend, pilots were permitted to operate within the 10-nm no-fly zone to Chicago Midway International by pre-screening at specific gateway airports if they filed a waiver 72 hours in advance of their flight into the airport. 

These measures still required pilots to jump through hoops to access the airspace, but they are small steps in the right direction, Miculka said. Pilot compliance with the rules in place can help build a foundation for less restrictive practices regarding airspace during presidential travels. And while it never takes the place of an official briefing, AOPA is also working to improve its information and to help lessen the confusion and frustration that pilots have experienced.