The FAA has formally tasked an industry committee with making recommendations for improving temporary flight restriction graphics in response to AOPA concerns about inconsistencies and errors in the way the airspace is depicted.
AOPA asked the FAA to make the tasking in December 2015 because of recurring problems with TFRs that have resulted in numerous airspace violations. On April 4, the FAA announced that it had responded to AOPA’s request by formally asking the RTCA Tactical Operations Committee to address the issues raised by the association.
“The notams that provide TFR information can be challenging to interpret, so having graphical depictions is important for helping pilots avoid restricted airspace,” said Rune Duke, AOPA director of airspace and air traffic. “The problem is that the FAA does not always provide graphics nor does it provide standardized information so that third-party providers can accurately generate their own graphics. As a result, graphical depictions are often either wrong or nonexistent, and that has led to many avoidable airspace violations. The committee tasking is a critical step toward resolving those issues.”
Even when the FAA provides TFR graphics on its own website, pilots are warned not to use them for flight planning purposes. And there have been instances, including during the Pope’s visit to New York in 2015, when the FAA’s TFR graphics have been inaccurate.
To mitigate the problem, AOPA asked the FAA to provide an authoritative online source of TFR information, provide TFR information in a consistent format so that automated systems used by third-party vendors can translate it into accurate graphics, and work to make the text of TFR notams more user friendly for pilots.
In its RTCA tasking, the FAA asked the committee to formally clarify and validate the issues AOPA raised with regard to TFRs, make recommendations for improving TFRs, and recommend policy regarding an authoritative source of TFR information and how the information can be used in flight planning. The FAA also asked the committee to develop associated business rules for how the information should be standardized and disseminated, and deliver its recommendations within six months.
In the meantime many third-party providers, including ForeFlight and Lockheed Martin, which operates flight service, have developed oversight programs to ensure the availability and accuracy of TFR graphics for their customers.
“Individual providers have done impressive work in finding ways to adapt to the challenges presented by the current TFR system,” Duke said. “But we also look forward to working with the FAA and our industry colleagues to develop a uniform, long-term solution to the issues.”
While the RTCA formulates recommendations on how to improve TFR graphics following the FAA tasking letter released on April 4, AOPA is already working with a number of organizations in the aviation industry to immediately address deficiencies and inconsistencies in TFR graphic data provided by the FAA.
“While we are seeing significant steps toward more accurate TFR graphics, AOPA is already working with ForeFlight and others to do what we can to ensure pilots are getting the right information and corrections are made in a timely manner,” said AOPA Vice President of Government Affairs Melissa Rudinger.
Working with AOPA, ForeFlight has recently deployed technology that can recognize missing or corrupted graphical TFRs that are delivered via the notam system. The new tool alerts ForeFlight’s TFR Desk team members, who then correct the TFR graphic and distribute it quickly to ForeFlight users. In addition to identifying and creating or correcting TFR information, ForeFlight notifies AOPA’s regulatory affairs team of the discrepancy. AOPA then works with the FAA in real-time to correct the information in the notam system. These corrections then make their way back to users via other channels, such as the ADS-B data link system.
“We established this effort to ensure ForeFlight customers get the most accurate depiction of graphical TFRs as quickly as possible,” said Tyson Weihs, ForeFlight’s co-founder and CEO. “We also then pass along the updated information to AOPA so it can be shared with the broader flying community.”
Others in the industry also have taken steps to prevent the dissemination of incorrect TFR graphics. Lockheed Martin has introduced manual oversight of TFR graphics to ensure accuracy. The manual approach is necessary despite available automated systems because of the inconsistency of the data provided by the FAA.
Besides providing pilots with accurate TFR graphics, the work that ForeFlight, AOPA, and others are doing is helping to identify the underlying technical and policy issues behind the problem.