Is it time to re-think TFRs?

“A TFR is a regulatory action issued via the U.S. Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) system to restrict certain aircraft from operating within a defined area, on a temporary basis, to protect persons or property in the air or on the ground.” So says AC91-63C, an advisory circular issued with the intent of illuminating the public on what the fuss is all about. For many, the TFR system works well, is understandable, and while it may be perceived as an inconvenience at times, it is widely believed to be a necessary one – especially when viewed from the perspective of a non-aviator.

On the other side of the fence, where GA tries to thrive, TFRs are a becoming a real irritant and a significant impediment to commerce. In Florida they’ve become almost ubiquitous, popping up with alarming frequency — sometimes remaining in place for days.

For a flight school trying to finish the year in the black, a flight instructor doing his or her best to move their students along and still stay one step ahead on the rent, or a student prepping for a practical test, there is nothing benign about waking up to find a TFR in place that will cancel their flights and stymie their progress. Businesses suffer, individual employees suffer, and students who are running tight on both time and money suffer.

Certainly there has to be a balance. National security is and always has been an issue of great importance. It would be foolhardy to suggest the president, vice president, or candidates for those offices deserve no special protection when in flight. But I have to wonder if much thought is being put into the impact these extensive and extended security measures are having on the economy of the areas they affect.

A flight instructor recently admitted to me that he had spent four days on the ground as a result of a presidential visit to Florida. And he’s not alone. Florida is the flight training capital of the world. Heck, the weather, if nothing else, is enough to attract aviation friendly folks to this subtropical sandbar I call home. Add to that a rich aviation history and some top-shelf aviation themed attractions, and you’ve got yourself a very pro-general aviation environment that thrives on flight instruction, aerial tours, and banner tow operations. At any given moment we’ve got literally thousands of aviation-minded folks saddling up for an excursion into the ether.

Except when a TFR is in force. All those aircraft, their pilots, their students, their customers, and their advertisements stay firmly on the ground – because the NOTAM tells them they must.

All this security creates a hardship that falls firmly at the feet of the law of unintended consequences. While the idea is to ensure the safety of our political leadership, the result is often hundreds of people put out of work for the day, or even multiple days.

When a visit by one person puts hundreds out of work, even for a day, one has to wonder if the visit is truly worth the trouble it causes.

Ironically, while Florida benefits from stellar weather that attracts people to come from all over the world, and is populated with a plethora of airports that makes GA flying a dream come true, it also suffers from a geographic anomaly that makes TFRs particularly problematic. Florida is a peninsula. When a 30-mile wide block of airspace is scratched off the map here, it constitutes a considerable barrier to conducting VFR flights. That is especially true of flights that focus on training activities.

That’s another layer being added to an already disruptive problem. The TFRs don’t just ground flights that fall inside the boundary of the TFR itself. Their impact is wider than that. It affects the general public’s ability to conduct flights in the vicinity of the TFR, too.

And in some cases it makes it virtually impossible for a pilot, or a flight student, to conduct a VFR flight from where they are to where they want to go. Not because they are going to overfly the center of the TFR, or even get within miles of the center. But on a peninsula, placement is everything. There are times when the TFR is blocking a considerable chunk of the Sunshine State’s real estate.

The effect is not unlike when a major highway is closed down. You may be able to see your destination in the distance, but your frustration level grows as you realize what should be a 15-minute drive is now going to take more than an hour, through surface streets that take you well out of your way. Worse, it may not be possible for you to get to your destination at all – or at least not until the highway re-opens.

TFRs are more than likely here to stay. Governmental agencies rarely find their own rules to be so ineffective, arbitrary, or disruptive that they unilaterally abandon them. That’s true even when the rules are truly and demonstrably ineffective, arbitrary, and disruptive.

A case can be made that TFRs can be described with any of those adjectives. Yet they will persist, and perhaps they should. But wouldn’t it be encouraging if the powers that be recognized the adverse impact these security zones can impose on average men and women, and modified them to make the area less debilitating to the GA industry?

Being a good neighbor is a two-way street. GA has certainly shown itself to be willing to accept considerable responsibility to work toward a safer more secure future. Would it be too much to ask that the agencies charged to work with us to achieve those same goals tried to shut us down a little less, and respect us a little more?


  1. Brett says

    “It would be foolhardy to suggest the president, vice president, or candidates for those offices deserve no special protection when in flight.” TFRs only exist for these people when they are on the ground. There is no special protection for them as far as airspace restrictions while they are in flight.

  2. Bill Mecozzi says

    I asked the folks at AOPA Legal Department about TFR’s and here is a portion of the reply………”A statistic you may find interesting is that since 9/11 the government (through a coordinated effort with the Air Force, Coast Guard, FBI, local law enforcement, and Secret Service) has responded to over 3000 presidential & VIP airspace violations (this includes the special flight rules area that surrounds Washington D.C.). Absolutely ZERO of these infractions were deemed a legitimate threat after all investigations were completed. Now imagine the expense associated with all of the personnel, equipment, and airmen certificate enforcement proceedings”

    • John Brest says

      I live in eastern central Washington state, Moses Lake, population 20,000. I was planning on picking up a plane that was in Prosser, Washington after an annual. The plane, a PA 28 235 belongs to a flight student of mine. He emailed me that morning with information of a TFR a little southeast of town. Come to find it is about a 1 mile radius and extends to 5000 feet. Frankly, folks, I thought this absurd. This little event is directly in line to and from two key airports used for practice.
      And whats the security risk? Someone is working on a pipeline? Well maybe we should put up TFRs around gas stations, fuel storage yards, ranches with 1000 gallon fuel tanks,…
      Enough is enough. It is time to send a message to these idiots.

  3. Mack says

    When I was a school child in Illinois, we were taught that our great country was not a monarchy, but a democratic republic.
    We were taught, that we had a civilian president, not a king, because we had human rights on the same footing as our leaders. We were allowed to use the street, just as much as our president.
    Why have we forgotten that lesson?
    Why do we buckle to the elite, why do we give away our wealth to foreign interests?
    You might be protecting a lying, robbing politician, but you are destroying a great country for which so many of us tried to defend.

  4. John Townsley says

    It is not just Presidential (VIP) TFRs established under 14 CFR 91.141 that create issues. During the summer fire season at at other times so-called “disaster TFRs) established under 14 CFR 91.137 are heavily used throughout the country, and especially in the western half of the US. Typically these TFRs have a ceiling of 3,000 feet above the highest terrain within the exterior boundary of the restricted airspace. So, for example, a TFR with a 8,000′ mountain located anywhere within it would have a ceiling of 11,000 feet MSL. These, often very large TFRs, block huge airspace and often push SEL piston aircraft away from the populated valleys over steep, forested terrain where an injury free emergency landing would be unlikely. “Disaster” TFRs for fire fighting often have only rotor wing aircraft operating within them. Those aircraft typically fly at 500′ AGL or less… Which means vast volumes of airspace are restricted for no benefit to operational safety. From experience, I can say it takes only a few minutes to establish a “Disaster” TFR. So why do these large airspace features pop up and remain long after the smoke is clear and fire fighting aircraft are on the ground? As one fire manager said to me “because we can”.

  5. Mike says

    Good article, good posts!
    And it seems the overwhelming majority of VIP TFR’s are for campaign fund-raising and political purposes only. Just think of what the millions each of trips cost the treasury (which is us!), their campaign funds should have to cover those costs.

    And to Jeff: it’s not the people in charge of security that necessarily think he is god, he thinks he is.

  6. says

    TFR’s are over zealous, over used and are an over reaction. We have seen so much of this knee jerk style action [or reaction] since Sept. 11. This, along with Security Directive 1542-04-08F/G, while well intended, only serve to restrict and curtail the freedoms we have enjoyed in this Country. Oh yes, it is quite fitting we re-think the TFR and the TSA 08F/G directive. Seems common sense is not so common these days. Have we become so afraid that we just roll over and take it, in the name of security? I just can’t help referring to Ben Franklin each time the subject of security comes up…………”They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”

    • Michael Dean says

      Knee-jerk. It’s what politicians do. the problem is… too many of “we the people” accept their knee-jerks as being real solutions.

  7. Ray Klein says

    The presidents overblown perseption bodes ill for the future. This kind of worship and vicarious living by his “followers” smacks of the cult of personality of communist regimes around the world in the past. The “dumbing down” of our children is by design, and will reduce the nation to ignorant surfdom. Is this what we want? Sorry to get off topic, but these opressive TFR’s or but a symptom of the illness.

    • says

      Yes but that sure didn’t start with the current president…I hope you haven’t forgotten the “first amendment zones” that appeared under the “leadership” of George Dumbya Bush.

  8. Mark says

    What’s really odd is that it also effects RC models! I can see a ten mile TFR for models. That would be about the three times the limit of a hobby transmitter. But really, a thirty mile limit for model airplanes? Really? There’s a case of someone not thinking it through and just being lazy in composing the law. RC modelers can figure out that a thirty mile TFR doesn’t apply to them, but a ten mile dones!

    And do they have F-16s on a hot pad ready to go in all cases? Probably not. I think it’s time for AOPA/EAA and AMA (the modelers organization) and FAA to schedule a meeting with the Homeland security folks and get a TFR that actually does what it needs to do without undue public restraint.

  9. Tom Helm says

    TFR’s are to large. Consider the increased cost of policing such a large area as compared to a more reasonably sized TFR. As far as VIP protection, how better to know where the VIP is than have a TFR follow them around, a bulls eye. Getting to the VIP with an airplane might be hindered but not a ground based vehicle than now readily knows where to find the VIP via the TFR.

  10. Jscott says

    Try vacationing on Oahu during the Christmas to New Years time frame. Obama shows up and has a TFR covering the whole island for 2 – 3 weeks. The aerial tour planes and helicopters are out of business. The glider ops are shut down. No GA of any type. This is a prime season for these commercial operators and they have to give up 2 – 3 weeks of their business so the president can play golf and lounge around in the sun. My last visit to Oahu, I was invited to fly with an old friend that was living there then. Literally a chance of a life time. When I got to Oahu, I found that Obama was already vacationing there and wouldn’t be leaving until the evening before I left. Scratch that flight of a life time.

    Do we need to protect the president with some sort of restrictions? Perhaps. But shutting down all private aviation and aviation businesses in an area for weeks seems way out of line. GA has never proven itself to be a threat. Only commercial (passenger jet) aviation has been used as a significant weapon. In Oahu, the passenger jet traffic continued as normal with the exception of about an hour before and after the president’s arrival and departure.

    • Michael Dean says

      “Do we need to protect the president with some sort of restrictions?”

      No. We don’t. Nobody is going to fly an airplane into the President. It’s just not going to happen. And as each year goes by, I am more and more convinced that this really has nothign to do with protecting the President. Or anyone else, for that matter. It is just another gimmick used to restrict our liberty.

  11. Dennis Reiley says

    I agree, TFR’s should be severely limited in both time and distance. There is no reason to limit flights in areas or times that pose no security risk. Granted there are GA pilots that ignore TFR’s and the penalties for doing so need to be increased but increasing the range of a TFR because of the few incompetents is not justifiable. Let a few pilots lose their license for a year and all pilots will be checking the TFR’s. The business of the entire country is not protecting the President; the Secret Service is being over protective and needs to be reined in.

  12. Rich says

    These things are way past due to “expire”.
    They have out lasted their usefulness.
    They are too much of an intrusion on the rest of our lives.
    They are not worth the inconvenience they cause to the rest of the world to benefit those they are supposed to protect.
    On top of that, they are useless.
    And they create criminals out of people that blunder into them.
    We all know to stay away from the “whitehouse” but when the whitehouse becomes a moving booby trap for the rest of aviation it serves no purpose.
    And I don’t care if the president is an R or a D.
    This has gone on way too long.

  13. Michael Dean says

    First of all, Washington politicians are not our “leaders”. They are our representatives. they are hired by us. They are paid by us. They work for us. They have been sent to Washington to do our bidding. In essence, they are our “followers”. And there isn’t a one of them that cannot be replaced. (In fact, if you ask me, they all should be. Regularly.)

    One of the reasons this country is in such trouble is because we have allowed them to create the illusion of a special “political class” of people. An elite group of individuals who are somehow wiser and, therefore, more “worthy” than the rest of us. (Question. If they are so wise, then why is this nation in such trouble?)

    So here we are now. Where the “security” of the one is deemed more valuable than the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of the many. We must all put our lives on hold, in deference to them. How is this any different than bowing to the King?

  14. Richard says

    Lee and Jeff, all I can say is a big AMEN to both of your comments and to your article Jamie. Its not going to get any better. They just keep tightening their control of us.

    • Glenn Darr says

      where are the tfr’s when the prez goes to Iraq or Afghanistan? That’s right, they don’t exist so no one knows they are there. It should be the same in this country, except it shows that our billions of useless dollars are doing “security”.

  15. Lee Ensminger says

    Jamie, that’s a nicely written, thoughtful article. Rational, thinking, considerate people would re-examine their priorities and practices and perhaps make adjustments. Unfortunately, you’re addressing politicians whose sole consideration is what makes them look better, raises money for their next campaign, or suits their own agenda. They don’t have to run a business or stick to a budget-heck, they can’t even draw up a budget-or spend less than they take in each year. Unless you can demonstrate that it’s in their own personal interest to modify their behavior, there’s absolutely no chance they will do so. They’ll continue to do what they’re doing…because they can. They’re completely detached from the needs of the people they’re supposed to serve and completely in touch with what they want for themselves.

  16. Jeff says

    I agree,

    It is time to RE-THINK TFR’s.

    In the old days before President Obama took office TFR’s were simple 3-5 mile circles around the area where the president would be staying. Nothing was said other than don’t go there and there was a minimal disruption of traffic. No big deal.
    What has changed ? The people in charge of security think he is a god. No matter what everyone else has to do the president is more important. Well, in my opinion that is hog wash. The president is public servant number one and not the other way around. We the people should not bow down to the office. The office works for us.
    The person who holds the office got there by his own choosing. It is an elected position not an exalted one. Go back to the days when “Wow” the president is in town and people continued on with there daily lives. Not everyone cares when he comes into town nor do they care where he stays. Also, Please ask the media to stop trying to hype everyday stuff so the majority of people can go about their own business without more gov’t interference. Thank you.

    • Gary says

      Sorry, Jeff, but TFRs came about under Bush, not Obama. I don ‘t like them and think that they have far outlived their usefulness, but please don’t let your personal politics try to rewrite the facts.

      • says

        Gary…did you completely miss the very first part of Jeff’s post? “In the old days before President Obama took office TFR’s were simple 3-5 mile circles around the area where the president would be staying.”

        I supported Obama and voted for him both times but I’m rapidly losing my respect for him, after all as he pushes to penalize General Aviation with exorbitant ‘user fees’ he has the world’s most elegant and expensive GA airplane at his disposal, and isn’t timid about using it. His approach to ‘gun control’ is another very sore point with me.

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