Deep in the FAA sits an organization tasked with a mission. At first glance that mission might sound impossible. But the FAA’s System Operations Security Directorate (SOS) is tasked with balancing the needs of various airspace users within the National Airspace System (NAS). SOS is your advocate for airspace restrictions and governs how they are made and implemented.
As you fly in the NAS, the common constraints you will encounter, often with limited notice, are Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), especially those established by the FAA for security or emergency operations purposes. While TFRs, like most system constraints, are not exactly popular with pilots, it is important to understand that the FAA only uses this tool when needed to meet overriding requirements, including aviation safety demands. The agency consistently works to mitigate the impact of TFRs on pilots and the broader aviation community.
How the Airspace Gets Made
SOS is the primary FAA office responsible for air traffic management-related security and disaster response operations. As part of that mission, the SOS often acts as an intermediary between agencies responsible for national security and the general aviation community. Balancing the needs of airspace users, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, with the need to maximize open access to publicly navigable airspace, is a critical consideration when SOS personnel evaluate TFR requests from these external agencies.
How SOS handles national security driven TFRs, including those implemented for presidential travel, provides a good look into the FAA’s continuous work to ensure that TFRs are only used when really needed, and executed in a way that lessens their effect on operators and others in the aviation community.
SOS receives requests for security-related TFRs to cover parades, sporting events, large concerts, and other outdoor events on a regular basis. The FAA is required by law and regulation to establish national security TFRs in collaboration with the Department of Defense or other federal security and intelligence entities. SOS staff partner with representatives from all branches of the military and the federal law enforcement community to thoroughly address and vet each request that is received. All TFRs are designed and approved based upon a stringent evaluation by SOS and security partners, taking into consideration statutory and regulatory mandates, security risks, and impacts on the aviation community.
One of SOS’s core principles is to maximize free airspace access. This fundamental consideration is taken into account with every security TFR request. SOS routinely works with interagency partners to adjust TFRs as a means to ensure minimal impact to the aviation community. SOS staff works with the requesting agency to include only the essential needs for dates, times, and airspace. At times, interagency requests do not meet the defined, credible security threat criteria for issuing a given type of TFR. In these cases, SOS queries the requester. If credible threat information has not been received, the TFR is not approved. If there is a credible security threat, SOS issues a TFR and works with the requestor to determine a timeframe when normal airspace operations can safely and securely resume. While personnel from the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice have significant input into vetting a TFR, the FAA retains the ultimate decision-making authority.
SOS is not limited to advocating on behalf of aircraft activity at large airports. In discussions with security partners, the FAA also advocates for other operations with a legitimate need to access airspace restricted by a TFR. For example, SOS may seek access for agricultural operations, community-based model aircraft organizations, or last-minute medical evacuation flights.
Maintaining the security of the NAS also requires notifying pilots of TFRs on a timely basis. Once a TFR has been published, SOS works very closely with pilot organizations to ensure the information is properly disseminated through a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and, in many cases, advisories distributed via the FAA’s Safety Program Airmen Notification System (SPANS) to the widest audience possible (see www.faasafety.gov/spans to register or log in).
“It is our intent to provide notification to pilots of flight restrictions well in advance to prevent any accidental incursions,” says Gary Miller, the Director of SOS. “Such incursions require security partners to dedicate valuable time and resources to intercept unintentional TFR violators that could be used to mitigate a legitimate threat,” he adds.
As an added layer to increase public awareness, SOS routinely works with the FAA’s Public Affairs office to communicate anticipated TFRs using the news media.
SOS’s mission isn’t impossible but it is challenging. Many different stakeholders can have conflicting demands on the NAS. “Finding an appropriate balancing point that allows user access while protecting the security interests of our partners is not only SOS’s challenge, but also its mission,” says Miller. It’s a mission they gladly accept.
James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.