Many hurdles face those flying to Winter Games

 - May 27, 2008, 9:55 AM

“The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics security plan is going to be the model of how not to do it. It’s going to go down in history as one of the most knee-jerk reactions to a crisis,” National Air Transportation Association president James Coyne told AIN. “We have a member of our board of directors who’s been working on this for over a year, and after all that time this plan comes from out of left field without any input from the business aviation community.”

In response, Richard Booth, the aviation enforcement program specialist for U.S. Customs, said every agency in the U.S. government was shocked by the September 11 terrorist attacks and was forced immediately to develop a new way of doing business. “Let me be candid,” he said. “The Olympics was just one of a multitude of concerns for U.S. Customs. When you start thinking about the window of time we had to make drastic changes in the way we protect our borders, you realize the Olympics was not our major concern. We had major border issues demanding immediate, drastic attention. All the agencies involved with the Olympics were in the same situation.”

Business aviation operators who are considering flying to the Olympics, but haven’t yet made arrangements, are just about out of time. The accreditation mandated by the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command (UOPSC) is a 30-day process. UOPSC is a collection of government agencies charged with developing and overseeing security for the Olympics. Many have wondered how UOPSC in general, and U.S. Customs in particular, got their authority. More on that later. First, the plan as it existed late last month.

Nine temporary flight restriction areas around various Olympic venues will be established. Each of the Venue TFRs is two to three nautical miles in diameter. In addition, there is a TFR called the Olympic Ring SFAR airspace. It has a 45-mi radius centering on the Runway 17 localizer/DME at Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC). All TFRs go from the surface to 17,999 ft.

It was initially rumored the TFRs would be in effect for two or more months. In fact, they become activated at 0001 MST on February 6, and remain in effect, 24 hr a day, until 2400 MST on February 24. Pilots are strongly encouraged to check FDC Notams as well as the FAA Web site to verify they have the most current information.

The Venue TFRs are the E Center in West Valley City; Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns; Peaks Ice Arena in Provo; Ice Sheet at Ogden; Snow Basin Ski Area in Huntsville; Olympic Park in Park City; the Park City and Deer Valley Mountain Resorts also in Park City; and the Soldier Hollow in Heber City.

The ninth TFR is around the Olympic Village in Salt Lake City and will be active from January 25 until February 26. It contains Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium for opening and closing ceremonies, the Medals Plaza and Salt Lake Ice Center. There are no authorized flights into any TFR except for law enforcement, DOD, emergency medical support and UOPSC.

Aircraft wishing to operate within the 45-mi-radius Olympic Ring airspace will be required to do so from six designated airports: Salt Lake City International (SLC); Salt Lake City Municipal (U42); Provo (PVU); Ogden (OGD); Heber City (36U); and, for rotorcraft operations, Skypark Airport (BTF). Operations into Hill Air Force Base (HIF) are prohibited for anyone not on official Olympic or Air Force business, and then only by prior permission. There are no exceptions to the TFR restrictions, not for electronic newsgathering helicopters or even the corporate sponsors of the Olympics.

While some VFR flights within the Olympic Ring airspace will be permitted, it will be tightly controlled and require a transponder and radio communication with the FAA. VFR flights must comply with all the other UOPSC requirements. Even so, there’s no guarantee of receiving a takeoff clearance. Booth said, “Based on what’s going on in the airspace at the time, and the perceived threat, flight in the Olympic Ring SFAR airspace may or may not be approved at the last minute.”

There are specific VFR operations forbidden in the Olympic Ring airspace for the entire duration of the Olympics: hang gliding, paragliding, parasailing, acrobatic flights, radio remote-controlled aircraft, gliders, ultralights, hot-air balloons/airships, tethered balloons of any type, parachuting, agriculture/cropdusting, coyote population control flights, shrimp spotters, heli-skiing, rockets and commercial cargo feeder flights not participating in the domestic security integration program. Flight training is also expressly forbidden, and Booth recommends flight-training programs reposition their aircraft outside the 45-mi radius for the duration.

This is not an area in which you want to interpret the rules loosely–the DOD will be there with fighters ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, even if you meet all the criteria the old saw “you can’t get there from here” is alive and well. First you have to go through a gateway airport.

While it is possible to fly VFR, like it or not you’re basically going to be flying IFR. To fly into the Olympic Ring, you must file for one of the six approved Salt Lake City destination airports, but plan for a stop at an appropriate gateway airport first. All aircraft will have to schedule a slot 48 hr in advance with U.S. Customs at a gateway airport for a Part 108-like security check of aircraft, aircrew and passengers. To schedule a security check, pilots should call the UOPSC center at (801) 257-2700. Additional information can be found on the UOPSC Web site (www.uopsc.org).

Published information has suggested security checks would be conducted at approximately four aircraft per hour, but one individual close to the planning who wanted to remain anonymous said, “They have no dogs available to help with the gateway project, and that means every search will be manual. It seems to me that’s the big wrinkle in the process. For instance, depending upon the number of people on board, a BBJ search could tie up a team for as long as two hours. That’s going to really throw off their schedules.” Once the check is completed and everything is found to be acceptable, the crew will be given a clearance to the destination airport.

The four gateway airports are Boise, Idaho (BOI), for traffic from the Northwest; Las Vegas (LAS), for traffic from the Southwest; Colorado Springs, Colo. (COS), for traffic from the Northeast; and Grand Junction, Colo. (GJT), for traffic from the Southeast. But you’re not home free yet–you won’t qualify for the inspection unless you have previously gone through the accreditation process established by UOPSC, which is estimated to take about a month.

Getting Accredited

All aircrew, except those flying for airlines and commercial cargo operators who comply with the FAA’s domestic security integration program, will be required to undergo a background check in line with the UOPSC pilot credential program and receive approval to operate within the Olympic Ring. The first step is for the crew to fill out the required forms.

The “Airman Access to 2002 Olympic Winter Games Temporary Flight Restriction Airspace” form asks for personal information, including drivers license number, airman certificate information, aircraft information, the type of mission planned (executive transport, charter, news media, cargo and so on), whether you will be operating under Part 91 or 135 and information on every company you will be working for during the games.

Many flight crewmembers have substantial concern over the “Authorization for Release of Personal Information” form which allows the government to conduct an extensive background search into your personal life (see box on page 3). You must also complete the “Application for Criminal History Record Review” form, get fingerprinted by your local law-enforcement agency, submit two color passport photos and a cashier’s check or money order for $15 pay-able to Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification. If you pass that process you will be issued a photo I.D. card, which you must wear throughout the entire flight.

Upon reflection, Booth said, “The original plan was developed to maintain a balance between economics and security. With the very narrow window we had to work within after September 11, economics was not the easiest to satisfy. We’ve tried to level the playing field and make it equal for everyone. No one agency made these rules, it was a coordinated effort between the FAA, DOD, Secret Service, customs, Olympic Commission and public safety people in Utah. We’re pioneering here and did the best we could do under the circumstances. I don’t think there’s ever been such a wide-spread, multi-agency effort on such short, notice, and especially in light of September 11.”

Not everyone agrees. Robert Lamond, manager of air traffic service and infrastructure for NBAA, said, “We have gone well beyond the realm of reasonableness. We have a few people making decisions with drastic effect on our national and local Salt Lake City economies. This is exactly what the bad guys want. We’re killing our economy, limiting our ability to travel and no one is asking the opinion of the people who would know what will and what won’t work. I will sing ATC’s praises in that regard; they’ve been trying to represent aviation fairly. They understand their customers and our mission. They’re almost as frustrated as we are about all of this.”

Presidential Directive

On May 22, 1998, President Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 62 “Combating Terrorism.” Under its authority the National Security Council can determine National Security Special Security Special Events (NSSE). The Secret Service is then designated to coordinate security for the event, and if it thinks airspace is an issue it turns over that portion to customs.

The U.S. Customs air and marine interdiction division has 122 aircraft in its fleet, including P-3s, interceptor jets, tracker aircraft, apprehension helicopters such as the Sikorsky Black Hawk and light helicopters. It is best known for its role protecting the nation’s borders from illegal immigration and drug trafficking but, according to a customs spokesman, the division also supports other federal agencies. Most recently it has done so for the Presidential Inauguration last January and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. UOPSC is made up of the FAA, Secret Service,
U.S. Customs, the Department of Defense and representatives of the local Salt Lake City area law-enforcement agencies.

According to Booth, about three years ago customs was notified it would be needed to provide airspace security for the Olympics. UOPSC was eventually formed and it included industry representatives. Unfortunately, the extensive planning of that group fell short when measured against the events of September 11. “After that we had to strengthen the plan as much as possible, as quickly as possible, so we moved additional assets and equipment into the plan,” Booth said.