November 9, 2012

It was, perhaps, the last Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) in a long, grinding political campaign season full of airspace restrictions, and it all began on the afternoon of Nov. 3 when NBAA’s Air Traffic Services (ATS) received an email warning message from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

It told of an impending presidential TFR for the Chicago area. Immediately, ATS representatives based at the FAA’s Air Traffic Command Center in Warrenton, VA, went to work plotting coordinates, getting a look at the shape and size of the restricted area, and noting the airports impacted.

Official notification from FAA followed a few hours later. Then came the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM): Air traffic would be prohibited within a 12-nautical-mile radius of Chicago’s near South Side. Carefully studying the design of the restricted air space, NBAA Air Traffic Services determined which airports would be impacted and what times their operations would be affected and, on Sunday morning, sent out an impact statement to Members.

“This was basically breaking it down – Chicago, Chicago Executive and Midway would be affected. We noted what times that the airports were going to be closed. Then we gathered up and included information on TSA screening at gateway airports if you wanted to go into Midway,” explained NBAA Air Traffic Services Manager Ernie Stellings.

Then it all changed.

Tuesday, the FAA reissued the TFR. Immediately, ATS went back to work on a revised impact statement, noting what had changed to cause the reissuance.

“In this case, in the very first sentence, we talked about a change in the time. What had happened was that the president had changed the timing of his arrival and departure. We looked at the impact again, seeing how this changed the closures and restrictions at the affected airports,” said Stellings.

In short order, the revised impact statement was sent out to Members, posted on the web page and “tweeted” to NBAA ATS followers on Twitter.

Later on Tuesday, trouble arose. NBAA Members began calling ATS saying they were having difficulty getting into and out of O’Hare International Airport (ORD) because of the configuration of the TFR.

“That, sometimes, is an issue. If the TFR is configured close enough to the arrival and departure routes, controllers won’t let general aviation traffic in there at all,” Stellings explained. It is an area in which ATS and NBAA are especially adept, Stellings said.

“When we see a huge impact, my boss, Bob Lamond, or Doug Carr (NBAA vice president for safety, security & regulation) will reach out to their contacts within government to try to get that [impact] minimized,” Stellings said.

“Sometimes, I think Secret Service and TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and other agencies honestly don’t realize the impact of these security measures [on general aviation]. Once we bring it to their attention, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we can see where that would be a problem. Let’s figure something out.’”

Partially as a result of concerns from GA operators as expressed through NBAA, the Chicago TFR was revised a second time on Tuesday. The 12-nautical-mile ring was reduced to a 10, allowing general aviation flights to operate into and out of ORD. In the meantime, ATS offered its subscribers routing assistance to ensure both full compliance with the TFR and minimal impact on flight operations, actively reaching out when ATS representatives spotted conflicts between airspace restrictions and the flight plans filed by NBAA Members that subscribe to ATS services.

If it all sounds extraordinary, it is in fact decidedly routine, according to Stellings. Since May 1, Air Traffic Services has processed 410 VIP TFRs. Of those, 209 were presidential, requiring ATS to develop statements delineating the impact those restrictions had on nearby airports and airspace. In June, ATS began tweeting TFR notifications. Between May 1 and Election Day on Nov. 6, there were 190 days when presidential movement required more than one TFR in a single day.

Without this one-of-a-kind source for airspace information, which breaks down the complex language of TFRs into easy-to-digest impact statements summarizing their impacts on local airport and flight operations, “there would be a lot more violations,” Stellings suggested. “I don’t know of anyone else who does this.”

Bruce Knox called it a vital service. “We have dozens of planes in our fleet,” said the manager of dispatch at Citation Air. “At any given time during the day we have a dozen planes in the air. Having the guys at Air Traffic Services decoding the TFRs takes away the guesswork. Having their input and knowledge and confirming the information really helps with the planning [we do]. And like they say, your flight is only as good as your preflight. What they do is invaluable. They speak your language.”