An unprecedented set of flight restrictions for the Vineyard announced yesterday will effectively shut down Katama Airfield for the duration of the Presidential visit from August 23 to August 30, and strictly regulate air travel to and from the Martha’s Vineyard airport, according to aviation experts.
A notice to airmen of a temporary flight restriction (TRF) released online yesterday morning by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) showed far stricter regulations than those enforced under President Clinton.
James Coyne, president of National Air Transportation, an organization which lobbies on behalf of general aviation businesses, argued that no flight restrictions have exceeded the scope and length of the TFR for the First Family visit.
“This is the most restrictive TFR we’ve seen. I can’t think of any example of such severe restrictions. It’s far, far more draconian than under Clinton,” he said.
It will also be the longest-running TFR according to Mr. Coyne, in place for the length of the President’s stay.
“It’s really unfortunate. It’s the height of the flight training and tours season; we’d hoped for some relief for the Katama tours,” added the former Republican congressman, who has a home on the Vineyard.
“It’s very disappointing for General Aviation.”
Martha’s Vineyard Airport facilities manager Sean Flynn, on the other hand, was not surprised.
“It’s everything we expected,” he said yesterday.
He agreed the restrictions were unfortunate for the Katama Airfield, but said for general aviation pilots looking to travel to the Martha’s Vineyard airport next week, it is simply a matter of preparation. “It’s about making sure the word gets out so that those planning to fly don’t miss the window to apply for waivers,” Mr. Flynn said.
The TFR sets up two levels of restricted fly zones — an outer perimeter of 30 miles in which all air travel is subject to flight plans and any aircraft must broadcast — or squawk — a discreet code with flight information from the flight transponder.
An inner core of 10 nautical miles around the airport prohibits travel without a waiver, with a few exceptions. Approved law enforcement aircraft, and military aircraft directly supporting the United States Secret Service or the office of the President are exempt, along with approved ambulance aircraft.
Also exempt are commercial airlines which are part of a Transportation Security Agency approved security program.
Both Cape Air and U.S. Airways Express are covered under these programs, Mr. Flynn said.
He said that by working with the FAA, the airport has been also able to make provisions for Angel Flights, the medical flights which take patients to appointments in Boston and elsewhere, including cancer patients receiving treatment.
“People seeking medical attention will be able to get off without a hitch so we’re happy about that,” said Mr. Flynn.
To qualify for a travel waiver pilots must send applications at least 72 hours ahead of time. All approved flights must stop at one of three gateway airports, for security screening: Westchester County airport, Barnstable airport and Green State airport.
In an additional quirk, all flights made using a travel waiver must leave a gateway airport before 8 p.m. Since the majority of air traffic through the airport is through general aviation — during the summer months, roughly 70 per cent of the traffic is general aviation (noncommercial) aircraft; a busy day in August last year saw 95 Cape Air flights, five U.S. Airways flights and 365 other operations at the Vineyard airport — this will mean effectively closing up a few hours early, according to Mr. Flynn.
“Hours of operation is one thing — that’s really restrictive,” said Mr. Flynn. “By 9 p.m. we’ll be done.”
The gateway provision puts pilots at Katama Airfield in a bind. Though there is screening facility at the Martha’s Vineyard airport, there is none at Katama. Since the airfield is positioned within the restriction zone, pilots cannot take off from the airport in order to go to one of portal airports to get clearance to fly within the restricted zone.
During Clinton visits temporary flight restrictions were in place only when the president was flying. There was an additional, smaller restriction in place around the First Family residence for the duration of visits. The Obama restriction is set at 18,000 feet, dramatically higher than during the Clinton years. Mr. Flynn said the extra height increases the scope of the cone-shaped restriction zone as it travels up, extending available reaction time against any possible threat.
“They want to know that all people in the air are authorized and they have time to deal with the threat,” he said.
Mr. Coyne called it overkill.
“I’m not convinced the risk is substantially different [from Clinton administration]; it was miniscule then and it’s miniscule now,” he said.
He argued that TFRs, although issued by the FAA, are structured by the Secret Service and marred by federal bureaucracy.
“I don’t think it’s anything more than security bureaucrats insisting on more restrictive because they can. It’s not clear the risk is any different the year before 9/11 as eight years after 9/11,” he said.
He said the restrictions fail to adequately account for the fact that the Vineyard is an Island with fewer travel options.
“You can’t just get in the car and simply drive out of the TFR,” he said.
Mr. Coyne said he has been working with the TSA to amend a flight restriction imposed in Chicago during Mr. Obama’s regular visits home, but he said on the mainland there are more options for pilots.
“If there’s a TFR on Midway airport you can still get to Chicago,” he said. “There are no other airports here; it’s very, very frustrating.”
FAA spokesman Jim Peters declined to comment yesterday on how the TFR relates to previous restrictions on the Vineyard or around the country. He added that he wasn’t sure if this will be the longest running TFR, but that he would not comment either way.
The TFR begins at 10:30 a.m. on August 23 and continues until 5 p.m. August 30.