A temporary flight restriction plan devised by Vineyard airport officials for President Obama’s summer vacation is being hailed as a model for airports across the country to use during future visits by the President and his traveling entourage.
The idea is to allow air traffic to operate at near-normal levels while maintaining the highest level of security. Instead of 72 hours advance notice with specific flight plans and listed passengers in a lengthy online registration process to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), only 24 hours and a head count given over the phone to the federal agency is required this year. All approved flights must stop at one of three gateway airports for security screening: Westchester County airport, Barnstable airport and TF Green Airport.
Martha’s Vineyard Airport manager Sean Flynn has coordinated with the TSA and Secret Service to make it easier for general aviation and private pilots to land on the Vineyard. Mr. Flynn said airports in Hawaii and Chicago, two places Mr. Obama visits regularly, are especially interested in the plan. And he said it could be a model for other airports as well.
“In discussing it with the Hawaiian airports and Midway Airport [in Chicago] where they’ve been completely shut down and haven’t been able to operate at all [due to temporary flight restrictions imposed for national security reasons] — they’re hoping to get to where we are,” Mr. Flynn told the Gazette this week. “They are trying to get a process developed so that they can minimize the impact to general aviation by using a process similar to this at other airports.”
At issue is what is known as a temporary flight restriction, or a TFR. The restrictions, which the Federal Aviation Administration imposes around VIP travel as well as other security concerns, hazards and air shows, can vary widely. They can require the pilot to submit flight plans to obtain permission for every flight in the form of a waiver from the TSA, and can prohibit the use of planes for instruction, tourism and air travel not governed by instruments.
The TFR over Martha’s Vineyard began an hour before the President’s arrival last Sunday and stays in place until his scheduled departure tomorrow; it applies to all private aircraft. In all three years of President Obama’s visits commercial airlines have been exempt, and small carriers such as Cape Air operate under a TSA-approved program. The special temporary restriction applies to private light aircraft, which make up the majority of air traffic on Martha’s Vineyard.
Mr. Flynn said the procedures on the Vineyard have evolved from year one to year three, with each year making restrictions more manageable for pilots. For the Obamas’ first Vineyard visit while in office, unprecedented flight restrictions imposed over the Island for the entire stay closed down Katama airfield and disrupted Angel Flights, a nonprofit that flies people needing medical treatments for serious illnesses between the Vineyard and the mainland.
In years past pilots had to give specific flight plans listing time of departure, details of each passenger, including name, date of birth and driver’s license numbers, plus a TSA vetting process.
“It was very rigid,” Mr. Flynn said. “That plan had to fly on that day with that crew and those passengers. You could subtract passengers but you couldn’t add. After the first year we got a little bit of leniency and you could add or replace.”
Going into year two Mr. Flynn said they dealt with hurricane scares and it became a security risk for pilots to have to fly on designated days.
“We didn’t want to force pilots to fly on days when they didn’t feel comfortable flying just because of a TFR so we looked at what was the reason why we weren’t letting people move a day earlier, a day later, if they had already registered,” he said. “So really there was no reason for it.”
This year pilots no longer have to register on the TSA Web site but rather can phone in basic information — the pilot’s name, tail number of aircraft, destination, number of passengers and number of females traveling (TSA must designate the right number of female screeners).
The flight restriction extends for 30 miles outside the landing zone. In the outer 20 miles, pilots must talk to the air traffic control tower constantly, or squawk in distinct codes. A transponder number is assigned with four unique numbers to each airplane so each aircraft looks different from all the others on the radar screen.
If pilots fly in the restricted zone without permission, Coast Guard helicopters will escort them out of the air space.
Mr. Flynn said there are still kinks to work out, and he will be suggesting to the TSA language refinements to make the rules clearer for pilots.
He said the temporary restrictions mean the airport loses money while the President is here.
According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a private pilot and aviation association, Chicago Midway Airport loses an average of $60,000 a day in revenue when President Obama visits the airport.
Mr. Flynn said the revised procedures for this year appear to have helped; he had no actual numbers but said the airport seems busier.
And he praised all the people involved.
“Typically people say ‘TSA screeners’ in a derogatory way, but the people here are fantastic as far as customer service goes,” Mr. Flynn said. “They don’t see themselves as a federal employee dealing with a passenger — they try to interact as much as possible and explain the process and be as friendly as possible. That really helps.” He concluded:
“As soon as a pilot or a passenger walks through the door, they’re met with a smile on their face with someone who explains the process. That is what makes it work.”
Mr. Flynn is also proud of the facility he manages. A $12 million project over the winter to install new ramps and move areas of runway allowed for the Secret Service to deliver the President’s equipment directly from Washington, D.C., rather than ferry it across. Two of the largest aircrafts ever to land on the Vineyard did so last Wednesday; Mr. Flynn said “human assets and physical cargo” were onboard but could not reveal any more than that.
Until Mr. Obama leaves the Vineyard, the airport is playing host to state and local police, Secret Service, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Air Force and TSA screeners from Boston. Mr. Flynn said there are good working relationships among local, state and federal agencies.