Expanded Flight Restrictions Ground Local Pilots

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Video transcript appears below.

Fighter jets had to scramble in Seattle because a small aircraft flew into airspace restricted by an August 2010 visit from the president. A Michigan pilot says while these flight restrictions are nothing new, they have recently expanded. He adds that while intended to thwart security breaches, the restrictions instead thwart his ability to make a living.

In flight, Nick McMahon of McMahon Helicopter Services narrates: "Traverse City down to the Benton Harbor area, and we flew the lakeshore the entire way; it was great."

McMahon reflects on a recent job that took him to Michigan's west side and earned his Canton, Mich.-based business $15,000, a trip he could not have made — and money he and his staff of eight would have lost — had it been during the president's visit to a Holland battery plant just two weeks later. That's due to federal aviation rules that were beefed up seven years ago in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"When the president comes to town," McMahon says, "there's what's called a presidential TFR now, that restricts a huge lump sum of air space."

TFRs, or temporary flight restrictions, ban most aviation within a certain distance of government VIPs like the president and vice president.

While they're purportedly for security reasons, McMahon says the latest expansion of these TFRs hamper his efforts to make a living hauling freight or chartering flights for aerial photography and film work.

"The presidential TFR has changed this year and gotten even larger than it was before," McMahon says. "It used to be 30 nautical miles, which was 36 statute miles. This is expanded to 35 nautical miles, which brings the number to a 42-mile radius around the president anywhere he travels. So that shuts down or restricts that entire section of airspace every time he comes."

The heightened aviation restrictions include some sporting events as well, effectively "grounding" business for McMahon and other small aviation companies during games.

"The NCAA sports on Saturdays for UM games, also Michigan State, that brings a flight restriction there," says McMahon. "We also have the NFL in Detroit, MLB — those both have their own flight restrictions, which is a 3-nautical mile radius around the stadiums, and that goes up to 3,000 feet. So it's like a cylinder of airspace that we can't fly in. That shuts down the whole metropolitan area of Detroit; we can't conduct any aerial photography, any cargo or charter flights, anything at all."

McMahon estimates that since 2003, TFRs have cost his business at least $300,000.

McMahon says, "That's direct loss; that's stuff we know about. The indirect losses are unmeasurable, because so many of our clients — like film customers, for example, that would normally be shooting stuff for the MLB games or something downtown — already know about these flight restrictions because it's been so long now and they're accustomed to them. We don't know what business has been lost when they say, 'Well, let's shoot something downtown Detroit today' and they say, 'Well no, there's a Tigers game.' So we have no idea."

The Federal Aviation Administration issues the TFRs on behalf of homeland security for operators of sports venues. The FAA works with the Secret Service for VIPs like the president and vice president. What it means for McMahon and other pilots is their preflight checklist includes looking at not only weather conditions but sports schedules and visits by high-ranking government officials.

"100 percent of the responsibility of every flight is with the pilot," McMahon says. "So before we even get into the aircraft, we're supposed to know about all the necessary information regarding that flight."

A U.S. Department of Transportation study found that all of the nearly 3,000 TFR violations between 2003 and 2006 were false alarms. McMahon says this fact alone should prompt regulators and legislators to reconsider TFRs.

"The ultimate goal is to get these restrictions either dropped or down to a reasonable level, to say, 'Hey, look, 100 percent of these violations were non-threats, you know, this is only violating pilots and U.S. citizens and veterans and everyone else that's in the air,'" says McMahon.

An FAA spokesperson tells the Mackinac Center the agency hears few complaints about TFRs and pilots are usually understanding of the rules.

Russ Harding is the director of the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He says well-intended government regulations can have profound unseen effects.

"I think the real message here is that regulations do have a tremendous impact on the bottom line, particularly of small business, and oftentimes it's easy for elected officials to write these regulations without understanding the unintended consequences that result," Harding says.

"It's tough; it's a big issue, and we don't know what to do about it," McMahon says. "Especially when the economy has been impacted so much. It's easier in the good times to say, 'Well, that affects a small percentage of our business,' but now when we need every dollar we can get; these flight restrictions just take that away: what little business we used to have seven years ago."


Kathy Hoekstra is a communications specialist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.