Before the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a one-mile bubble of airspace used to follow the U.S. President around, theoretically protecting him and his entourage from airborne threats. That bubble has grown to a 10-nm diameter ring surrounded by a 30-nm restricted zone, raising a key question: Is the risk of an attack now that much greater than it was before 9/11?
For flight schools, small charter operators, helicopter companies, banner towers and business and personal fliers, the questions are different. Does the risk of an attack on the President justify grounding hundreds of general aviation aircraft just because the President happens to be traveling near airports where they are based or need to fly? Does it make sense that general aviation aircraft are grounded when airliners are allowed to keep flying, considering it was airliners that were hijacked and used as flying missiles during the 9/11 attacks? Does the President care that businesses that provide good jobs are losing so much money every time he travels? And what about all the sports stadium temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) that pop up whenever enough people attend (more than 30,000), preventing pilots from flying within three nautical miles or 3,000 feet and below of a stadium for an hour before and an hour after a game?
Perhaps the larger question is: do these TFRs even make sense in terms of security practices? Exactly how does prohibiting flight in a three-nautical-mile, 3,000-foot area prevent an attack? One could ask the same question of the “TFRs” over Disneyland in Southern California and Disney World in Florida. How does erecting a prohibited zone over these theme parks prevent an attack? And to be clear, the Disney zones, while designated TFRs, are anything but temporary. They were mandated by legislators after 9/11, supposedly because of fear of further attacks on such apple-pie American icons. But why a quasi-permanent TFR over Disney properties and none over Magic Mountain or Knott’s Berry Farm or Universal Studios or SeaWorld and so on?
The nature of TFRs was made abundantly apparent in the restrictions in the San Francisco Bay Area on April 4. President Obama was visiting to raise funds and caused the shutdown of a large amount of airspace, as can be seen in the screenshot from the latest version of the Garmin Pilot iPad app (the blue circles are sports stadiums, although they don’t necessarily indicate an active stadium TFR). Not even radio-control models are allowed to fly during these TFRs, while airliners and charter operators covered by specific TSA programs can continue to operate.
Cost to Small Businesses
For Nick McMahon, director of operations at McMahon Helicopters of Canton, Mich., TFRs mean more than $1 million in lost revenue since 2003. McMahon used to fly photo missions for customers during sports events. A typical job was towing an American flag with a helicopter during boat races in Detroit. “That’s screwed up because of Tigers baseball games,” he said. Most of the customers he used to work with no longer even bother to call for quotes because they know the stadium TFRs make it impossible for McMahon to fly about 100 days of every year.
There is one option, and that is seeking help obtaining a TFR waiver from the sports teams, but there is no incentive for the teams to cooperate, so that never works, he said. “They don’t care about what I’m doing.”
For years, McMahon has written to legislators and spoken to FAA officials to try to get relief from the TFRs that have cost him so much revenue, and the answer has always been that the only option is congressional action. “There are not enough businesses out there like us to fight this thing,” he said. “It affects only a small number of people.” McMahon even tried to generate interest in a White House petition. “It was a big joke. The petition didn’t get nearly enough signatures.”
Dan Sweazen, president of Executive Helicopters & Aircrane Services in Pittsburgh, Pa., agrees with McMahon. “We lost $70,000 the first year the TFRs took place,” he said. The presidential TFRs don’t bother Sweazen because they generally don’t last long. “The TFRs that affect us the most are sporting-event TFRs,” he said, “which started as security-based restrictions but have continued because major league teams like the fact that we can no longer fly photographers, and banner towers can’t advertise during events like they used to.”
The creation of TFRs as a method of deterring terrorists is questionable, according to McMahon. “[Legislators are] trying to do the impossible by making a law, and the law doesn’t prevent anything,” he said. “What terrorist or person wanting to do harm is going to obey laws? All it does is prevent law-abiding citizens from doing their jobs. They might as well put up a sign, ‘No terrorists allowed.’”
“I was a first responder at Flight 93 on 9/11 and have endured much since then,” Sweazen told AIN, “but the sporting-event TFR is the most unconstitutional ever! The fact that they can issue us a waiver to shoot video when needed for broadcast tells you that the whole reason for [the sports teams] is revenue.”
The massive TFR that affected the San Francisco Bay Area in April wasn’t that big a deal, according to Dan Dyer, owner of San Carlos Flight Center, a flight-training facility south of San Francisco. “I don’t see it as oppressive,” he said, “[or] overly burdensome. It seems reasonable to me that we protect these people.” For Dyer, the effect of a TFR is similar to a passing storm. “It doesn’t destroy us. And this one’s pretty benign because it’s occurring in the evening and early morning. We’ll lose only about two flights.”
“I’d be hesitant to say TFRs lead to or contribute to significant security [protection],” said Richard Bloom, chief academic officer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz. campus. Bloom has worked with the U.S. government as an intelligence operations manager, political-military planner and military clinical psychologist. But outsiders see only the basic parameters of TFRs. “What else is going on?” he asked. “A TFR might be one of a number of ways of trying to protect an asset.” And the other methods will not be easily known, he explained, “so you’re buying more security.”
The restrictions over places like Disney’s properties should be analyzed continually, Bloom said, to determine whether the risk of an attack has changed. “Right after 9/11 it was vulnerability oriented,” he said. “But you can’t protect against everything. Then it became more threat-oriented. When you put threat and vulnerability together, you get risk.” The TSA is doing a better job of risk assessment, he added, instead of just trying to protect everything.
Ultimately, advances in technology, perhaps ADS-B, may make TFRs redundant. “We’re not there yet,” Bloom concluded. “Any technological advance may be used in such a way that a security procedure that has seemed effective may not be needed. But technological advances can be used by terrorists, too.”