Washington airspace
9 min read

Pilots and aviation lobby groups are up in arms right now about the potential privatization of Air Traffic Control, and rightly so. Unfortunately, these same groups have been much quieter about another government-led aviation disaster, one that has happened right under our noses: the relentless expansion of restricted and controlled airspace. This trend has been clear for at least 20 years and it should enrage more than just diehard libertarians. Many pilots now worry more about airspace than weather when planning a flight – a truly sad state of affairs with serious consequences for recreational aviation.

Total Freedom Restrictions?

Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) are the highest profile example of America’s airspace creep, and for good reason. The current TFR system is a disgrace. The ubiquitous red circles are created with little warning, using a process that is completely opaque, and then inconsistently communicated to pilots. It’s no wonder that over 500 pilots violate them every year.

TFRs were certainly around before September 11, 2001, but they exploded in popularity after that terrible day. Soon there were stadium TFRs over football games, Presidential TFRs over campaign rallies, fire TFRs in western states, and so many more. If a disaster scenario can be dreamt up, a TFR will probably be issued.

Washington airspace

Can’t make this up: a stadium TFR, within the FRZ, underneath Class B, surrounded by the SFRA.

It’s understandable that America’s security machine would react to such a world-changing event with new restrictions, but the resulting TFR mess was not inevitable. Consider that America managed to survive without TFRs in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, even though the 1960s featured a much more active general aviation sector – and many of those airplanes were flying around without transponders. The difference this time surely has something to do with the weapons (airplanes) the 9/11 attackers used, but the desire to “do something” without regard to cost or procedure seems just as important. In effect, our airspace design became subordinate to the Secret Service’s mission, which is not quite the checks and balances that America’s founders had in mind.

This haphazard approach – one almost completely without oversight – has predictably led to abuse and incompetence. Start with the misleading name. There is nothing temporary about many TFRs, including the outrageous ones over Disney in Florida and California that have been “temporarily” in place for nearly 15 years (hello “temporary” income tax of 1861). Similarly, former President George W. Bush’s home in Dallas has been protected by a TFR since 2009. The fact that such restrictions haven’t been codified in law suggests their creators know they are on shaky ground.

Another frustration is the conflicting advice from the FAA. Their TFR.FAA.gov website, which did not even offer graphical representations until they were dragged into the 21st century a few years back, still warns that “Depicted TFR data may not be a complete listing. Pilots should not use the information on this website for flight planning purposes.” What purpose does it serve if not flight planning?!

Essentially, the federal agency responsible for airspace management is admitting that there is no single authoritative source of airspace data. Pilots have to roll the dice and hope they don’t fall into an airspace trap. This has led to confusion on the part of many general aviation pilots, to the point where some simply avoid flying anywhere close to cities.

The TFR’s ugly cousins

TFRs are just the beginning, unfortunately. Now there’s a new (technically back from the dead) three letter acronym to deal with: TRA. As the FAA explained recently: “The FAA will soon begin limited use of a Temporary Restricted Area (TRA) in certain areas when the types of operation(s) to be conducted there require a TRA. The flight rules that apply to a TRA are the same as a Restricted Area (RA).”

This type of circular reasoning is alternately mystifying and infuriating: TRAs will be set up in areas where TRAs are required. That gives the FAA almost infinite flexibility. These TRAs are even more obscure than TFRs, and many flight planning tools don’t depict them.

SUA map

A map from the FAA on a typical day shows a mess of restricted airspace – all active or scheduled to be active within 8 hours.

Another outgrowth of the TFR craze is the Washington, DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA), whose inner ring, the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), essentially bans all general aviation traffic. These creative new airspace categories were actually set up in anticipation of the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, not in response to September 11. Not surprisingly though, some six years after US troops left Iraq, this 2800 mile airspace grab remains in place.

The SFRA and FRZ, just like TFRs, suffer from the same flaw that most other hastily-prepared policies do: there’s no process to evaluate the new rules and consider whether they actually work. Instead, yesterday’s power grab becomes tomorrow’s expectation. While “the FAA Administrator has broad authority to regulate and manage national airspace in the interest of safety and efficiency,” changing the SFRA/FRZ rule would require coordinating with a dizzying array of agencies, including: the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Department of Energy. Nobody gets promoted for taking on that task.

Not just TFRs

The pain doesn’t stop with post-9/11 security airspace, unfortunately. Another frustrating example is Class B airspace, which is almost impossible to downgrade once it has been established.

Two noteworthy examples are Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, formerly major bases for Delta and US Airways that lost their airline hub status years ago and yet have seen no change in airspace. As you might expect, the requirements for establishing Class B airspace are fairly specific: the FAA’s Order 7400.2L requires that an airport have at least 5 million annual passengers and total airport operations over 300,000 before it can be considered. Even then it’s not required. By those measures, CVG long ago fell below this standard, with airport operations dropping almost 70% between 2000 and 2016.

And yet Class B airspace persists, mostly because there is no process to change the airspace back to Class C. It’s a telling omission – no one ever considered the idea that airspace would get smaller, although methods for making airspace bigger are clearly defined.

This is frustrating for student pilots and anyone at outlying airports, but it’s also increasingly expensive in the context of ADS-B Out equipage rules. Whereas Class C airspace requires ADS-B Out avionics only within its 10-mile radius, Class B extends that airspace out to 30 miles, all the way to the ground (the so-called Mode C veil). As a result, 6 additional airports around Cincinnati and an astonishing 19 around Pittsburgh are included in the ADS-B Out requirement that would not be with Class C. That’s hundreds of airplanes and millions of dollars wasted, all because of an inflexible system.

What to do?

The solution to this long list of complaints isn’t quick or easy, but a place to start would be our country’s general attitude about security-related airspace. TFRs are not new, and it’s time we stopped treating them as some stopgap measure. With more and more cities working themselves into a panic over drones, we can expect the demand for airspace restrictions to grow. The sooner we have an efficient, transparent system for changing airspace, the sooner we’ll be able to balance safety and efficiency.

More specifically, all TFRs should come with automatic expiration dates and require reauthorization – perhaps even by Congress. The neverending Disney TFRs set a terrible precedent, one that could be used by any number of non-governmental organizations.

Disney World

If Disney World can create a permanent TFR, why not SeaWorld? Six Flags? The county fair?

For the airspace that already exists without an expiration date, a method must be established for evaluating and then removing those sections that no longer make sense. Perhaps we need an airspace version of the long-running Base Realignment and Closure commission, which took a systematic approach to closing US military bases made obsolete by the end of the Cold War. Until it’s someone’s job to reduce airspace growth, it won’t happen.

Even easier than that, the FAA should guarantee a centralized, real time airspace feed that is accessible to all pilots. How can a VFR pilot in a Cub be expected to avoid TFRs, TRAs, MOAs, and everything else if even the FAA cannot provide a reliable source of such airspace?

A longer term goal, one which will depend on technology as much as politicians and bureaucrats, would be to draw airspace more precisely. The inspiration here should be the new generation of RNAV approaches, which use curving final approach paths to fit instrument procedures into tight terrain. Could we use the same approach to draw smaller, irregularly-shaped airspace that covers only the areas that are essential to protect? This could end up being complicated, but if done properly the net effect might be smaller restricted airspace.

Aviation organizations are not asleep at the wheel. An RTCA group has submitted a list of 54 recommendations to the FAA for improving TFRs, most of which are sensible. AOPA has also been fighting for Class B downgrades for some time now. Both efforts deserve our support, although progress has been predictably slow.


I’m sure European pilots are currently rolling their eyes at this “problem.” These complaints would be a dream scenario in most other countries. But while America still has some of the freest airspace in the world, that hardly means it’s guaranteed – it will only stay that way with serious effort. Most importantly, in the absence of convincing evidence that airspace restrictions have improved safety or security, the default status of airspace should be open.

The good news is that, in a time when almost everything is political, this issue really shouldn’t be. Airspace restrictions have increased under both Democrats and Republicans; mistakes have been made by Congress, the executive branch, and the bureaucracy alike. No party or politician need take special blame here, and no new taxes need to be imposed to fix the problem. We just need to put our airspace on a diet.

John Zimmerman
30 replies
  1. CharleyA
    CharleyA says:

    Meh, TFRs are easy to manage if you do adequate preflight planning, AND have applicable in cockpit technology – that’s why I am equipped with ADS-B In (and Out for a more accurate traffic presentation.) The FIS-B data included with ADS-B includes pop-up TFRs which is essential IMO, particularly in my situation – I’m based adjacent to the DC SFRA, and the area has a lot of stadiums and Presidential “movements” resulting in TFRs. Quick story about adequate preplanning. I was returning from Texas after picking up my RV (not equipped with ADS-B at that point,) on the Nashville – DC area segment. I had stopped in London, KY for a biological / refueling evolution. As my practice on long cross country over the mountains, I got a quick verbal wx update. As it turned out, a F-15 had crashed along my proposed route of flight – and the pop-up TFR that was subsequently published. I was happy I made the wx call, but disturbed that the TFR didn’t show on Foreflight – the airport had working wifi and I had good cell signal. Turns out that issue was operator error – I had TFRs turned off (probably happened during a version update, grrr.)

      • CharleyA
        CharleyA says:

        Which is why I also suggested getting a FSS briefing (especially in unfamiliar airspace.) However, you can only do so much. In my view, any action taken against a pilot who reasonably did all they could to avoid TFRs should be OK at the end of the day – as what happened in the situation you reference. Can the process be improved? Sure. But sloppy pilots should be held accountable for their willful oversights.

        • Jay
          Jay says:

          Charley, when this government that is really no longer the people’s government puts you on a train and tells you that you are going to a temporary labor camp, you be sure and comply so someone won’t think you are a sloppy pilot. Make sure you show up at the train station on time and obey the orders from the soldiers.

          • CharleyA
            CharleyA says:

            Yea, I don’t ascribe to that viewpoint, i.e. “this government that is really no longer the people’s government,” and I don’t want to spiral down that rabbit hole. I think we can agree that airspace has gotten more complicated. I fly in some of the most complex airspace in the nation, but it not particularly hard or unduly restrictive, but you do have to know the procedures. On another note, I was flying down to SNF on an IFR flight plan that took us through some MOAs. We got some vectors, but no ridiculous re-routings. A pair of F-15s out of SC wanted ATC to vector us off route so they could enter the MOA at our altitude. ATC told them nope. The F-15 doing comms was exasperated, but he was also an exchange pilot judging by his accent – maybe in his country that wouldn’t happen.

        • Jay
          Jay says:

          Yow Charley, some of the soldiers in the train station and the labor camp might be speaking another language as well. But don’t worry, you’ll understand what they are telling you to do when they grunt and point their rifle at you. If you still misunderstand their directions they will likely use the heel of their boots to explain further.

      • Willis Allen
        Willis Allen says:


        I passed on your articulate article on Death Taxes & Airspace to many of my pilot pals around the western USA whom I feel are advocates and actavists and passionate about flying. Most of us fly antiques and vintage fighter aircraft as well as airliners and private aircraft.

        What you have brought forth should be a top of the list concern requiring some type of action on each of our parts. Perhaps you can make suggestions as to whom we should respond and provide us with an outline of suggestions for fixing some of this??

        Thank you for a most informative and well written account.

        Willis Allen
        Allen Airways Flying Museum

      • John
        John says:

        Last summer I presented a webinar fot the FAASTeam… topic: TFRs & airspace. To prep for it I monitored cockpit depictions of TFRs from a couple major aviation Apps, and reviewed the manuals for most major apps. It’s a given that all apps are software, and all software has bugs. Compounding this are data entry errors. On average, I found 3 or more serious depiction and description errors for TFRs that could, as a minimum, result in a pilot violation… and might result in a MAC. Of course, without exception, flight planning and incockpit apps contain legalistic warnings that depictions in apps are ‘advisory only’ and that other [official … like FSS] sources must be consulted. FWIW, the numero uno reason for TFR or airspace violations cited by pilots in ASRS reports remains “software (i.e. app) error”.

    • Mark Weller
      Mark Weller says:

      You miss the point, the airspace grab that has been happening and continues to happen is just another part of the incessant growth of governmental power grab. It is unnecessary and in fact dangerous.

  2. Steve R
    Steve R says:

    An area I have had issue with is MOAs. They have increased in number over the last 30 plus years. Not only are their numbers an issue, the shapes and altitudes are all over the place. Overlapping ones are the worst. If you compare charts from the 70s and 80s today, it makes you cringe. They can make the idea of going direct questionable or not at all possible.

  3. Frank
    Frank says:

    Flying for me from1966 up until 9-1-1 when this useless government turned against us citizens, it was “Land of the Free”.
    I was trying to complete my A&P rating in a school in FL then when the enhanced class B airspace was the start of the destruction and take over of aviation freedom by a criminal dictatorship.

  4. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    John, I’m glad you brought this up. It appears to be somewhat of a taboo subject amongst the alphabet groups.

    If the highway department went down the freeway randomly throwing out red spots, called TDRs (Temporary Driving Restrictions) and warned drivers that it was up to them to identify and avoid those spots, why, there would be a revolution.

    The permanent TFRs over NFL football games and Disneyland, I believe, were due to those organizations wanting to eliminate the pesky banner towing airplanes over “their” event. Even here in America, believe it or not, Big Money can get what they want from the politicians.

    I suspect that as long as the general populace is happy being subjected to strip searches and x-rays, all in the name of “security”, this airspace restriction problem will not be solved.

  5. Chris Glaeser
    Chris Glaeser says:

    This is an excellent summary, and I’ve forwarded the link to my AOPA and EAA government affairs people. It’s even worse than you’ve stated: TFR effective times can slip for a variety of reasons, such as weather delays or overtime in sports events. This means you can plan perfectly and still be violated. Also, a TFR can occur after you takeoff off, and unless you are on a IFR flight plan, you can be violated for penetrating that area. This effectively mandates “datalink” for VFR aircraft inflight, forcing you to actively monitor Foreflight (etc) via some type of active updating.

  6. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    This article needed to be written. Just to add to your frustration John:
    Out in Wyoming and Montana we just got a huge expansion of the Powder River MOA.
    They went through all the notices and processes and ok, I guess I’m as patriotic as the next guy, fly your B1s to your hearts content there and I’ll go around.
    BUT, when the MOA is active and I divert around it eg. going Billing to Gillette to Rapid City instead of Billings direct Rapid I often get vectored even further out of the way.
    When you ask Center about it they say it’s for the “ATCAA” pronounced “at cah”
    Basically it just more airspace taken without being depicted and without due process.
    From FAA.GOV
    “These types of airspace are described in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), however, Air Traffic Control Assigned Airspace (ATCAA) is only mentioned in the Pilot Controller Glossary under “ATC Assigned Airspace.” In simpler terms, ATCAA is simply the equivalent of an MOA at FL180 and above.”

  7. Peter N. Steinmetz
    Peter N. Steinmetz says:

    Thank you John for writing about and publicizing this problem. Unfortunately, must like the TSA, the government adds more and more intrusions into our freedom and privacy with no demonstrable improvement in safety.

  8. Tom M
    Tom M says:

    The Privatization of the ATC System is a dangerous concept. We saw what happed when L-M took over the FSS. OK at first (why retired FSS employed at first{ of course-all gone now).

    Some VFR Tower can be privatized but most busy ones, all approach controls & centers cannot.

    ‘I am a retired Center Controller: I can predict disaster for the entire aviation community ( AC-Mil-GA) if this system is privatized. Private industry cannot match the current system.

  9. John Peters
    John Peters says:

    Thank you for a very informative article. I’m approaching 70 years and have been out of the aviation community for 35 while raising family and struggling with business overburdened with govt. I recently bought my first airplane “mistress”: 1946 J3 to start all over. I was 16 when the romance began…the fire still burns.
    This “rusty pilot” is amazed at some of the changes in general aviation during my absence. First and foremost is how broad the FAA has become. In a recent conversation with a friend pilot, commercial, instrument, A&P/I, his comment was: “I try to stay away from the larger airports.” This was baffling to me. I’m now beginning to understand why. It wouldn’t take long for the FAA to make criminals (violators) out of well intentioned honest pilots….kinda like over zealous “gun control”. My question is: Will an over abundance of newly controlled (stolen) airspace actually stop even one demented pilot who is bent on suicide by air disaster? I don’t think so.
    My second frustrating gripe about today’s aviation world is the thousands of acronyms being used. My solution is to require a glossary with every magazine, book, article, and charts or……quit using them.

  10. Brian Price
    Brian Price says:

    My decision to confine my flying to sailplanes, here in Colorado, was almost entirely driven by my dismay at the complexity and cost of air navigation through the nesting hodge-podge of airspace designations. I would not fly at all if my experience were dominated by high technology and ATC restrictions. I can soar to my heart’s content here, without leaving Class E. Feels almost like “freedom to fly,” so long as I don’t venture 5 miles north or miss a VIP TFR. Ask why younger folks are not learning to fly, and why recreational GA is declining? Just think about the intimidation factor for a prospective pilot, who wants to fly, not just twist dials and ask for permission. GA needs to fight back, per Mr. Zimmerman, but it doesn’t help to start railing against the “dad-gum gummint.”

  11. Don Rieser
    Don Rieser says:

    Great article John. This restricted airspace growth has been so insidious over the 40 years I have been flying it took your article to wake me up. The sports TFRs that pop up on the Chicago lake front force those of us avoiding the ORD class B and MDW class C out over Lake Michigan beyond gliding distance to shore. Let’s hope when the AOPA and EAA finish defeating ATC privatization the FAA will “owe them one” and take some reasonable action to downsize. To John Peters point, maybe AOPA needs to hire a couple folks from the NRA.

  12. Jay
    Jay says:

    When the people finally figure out who is behind these airspace restrictions and what they are really up to, one of two things will happen. Either the people will give them a fair trial and then hang them, or else if the people don’t figure it out in time, the people themselves will be hanged without getting a trial.

    I’ll give you a hint. The first 3 letters of their last names start with Roc and Sor.

    These men are cooperating with the enemies of America in favor of global governance and they mean to actively track, everything that fies, floats, rolls or walks because they want zero resistance to their forced agenda.

      • Jay
        Jay says:

        Yes, it is sad isn’t it. Did you ever get a chance to see the movie Haulocaust? Occasionally Hollywood describes things accurately.
        But it’s pretty rare for the majority of people to see it coming which is why it happens in the first place. People are just too lazy and preoccupied to see it coming until it’s too late. Like Nancy Reagan said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

  13. Robert
    Robert says:

    “Most importantly, in the absence of convincing evidence that airspace restrictions have improved safety or security, the default status of airspace should be open.”

    Although this kind of thinking is common among medical practitioners, it won’t get you far with the government, because it’s tantamount to the following assertion: “a reasonable but untested hypothesis is necessarily false.”

  14. Roger Cox
    Roger Cox says:

    This is a really well written article about the unthinking expansion of security mindedness in America. The airspace around DC is a nightmare for pilots. I hope the most intrusive restrictions can be reduced. At the same time, pilot carelessness can really blow all our arguments. Witness the intrusion on the Wallops NASA launch yesterday. Maybe the pilot made an honest mistake, but whatever happened needs to be fully explained. I hope Air Facts, AOPA or other journals will get to the bottom of that event. If it turns out to be what it appears to be, it will be ammunition for those who want stronger restrictions. Let’s learn from our mistakes.

      JOHN ZIMMERMAN says:

      I agree these incidents are embarrassing for pilots. Think about the Cessna evacuating the US Capitol.

      But you could also argue that many of these violations show just how silly the restricted airspace is. It checks a box for security agencies, does hardly anything to actually improve security, wastes a bunch of money, and removes a lot of the fun from flying. Not sure who wins in that scenario.

  15. Mark Shell
    Mark Shell says:

    Interesting article – as a current pilot in training and US Congressional candidate – I have added this to my campaign list of items to work on if elected.


  16. Rich
    Rich says:

    I’ve been in both types of cockpits (military user/civilian pilot) in/around MOA/Restricted/Warning and Low Levels. I understand the frustration of fenced off airspace living/flying as a “VFR for the fun of it” pilot in the DC area.

    I can tell you that for active airspace, you don’t want to be the bug on the windshield when TACAIR platforms are flying 0.9M chasing each other up/down 0-25K AGL (or higher) vertically running ACM, intercepts, rejoins, tanking or terrain following, they’re too busy to track you, may not be pointed at you until too late cranking around in a high G turn (onboard radar sees ahead, not behind, and that’s assuming it’s working/equipped), you are a tiny dot that may be hidden behind a canopy bow, and even then, they will probably survive the impact if it does happen…you will not come out as well. Not everyone is the “ace of the base” yet and the edge doesn’t stay sharp long…that’s what the training areas are for. A few airplanes traveling at .7-.9M in opposite directions can consume an awful lot of airspace developing realistic training set ups (a 2 minute intercept run with airspace buffers, orbits, etc can easily eat up 60nm).

    I am no fan of the plethora of TFRs but at least the bogey sort is easier and everyone in the nearby airspace isn’t at risk from engagement when someone screws up. Regardless of the fairness of “blanket TFRs”, I think it is incredibly unrealistic to require pilots to know the location/activity of an event if the FAA information provider (FSS) can’t track the info.

    I also want to point out it hasn’t been a completely bad news story, even though we still have the DC SFRA, at least it lost its “Mickey Mouse Ears” initial configuration after public comment and went to a single 30nm ring.

    That said, is there room for improvement? Yes. Here’s some suggestions, some of which I’ve provided to the FAA, others to AOPA:
    1. No blanket TFRs…FAA should require an event POC to file a request, get it approved and FAA should provide that information in a TFR reporting system available to FSS and online providers. If schedule changes or goes long, info must be updated early enough to act on. Duration must match event (not 24 hrs for a 3 hr game)…No info, no TFR.
    2. Existing airspace should be reviewed and reapproved on a cyclic basis, based on current and realistic projected future usage.
    3. No 24/7 or other long term scheduled Restricted Airspace unless it is actually protecting something there 24/7.
    4. All other Restricted Airspace, low levels, MOAs, Warning Areas activity must be scheduled and accurately reported daily and throughout the day, no activity it gets updated and goes cold…some controlling agencies are good at this, others not so much…FSS must brief and have continuous access to this.

    Organizational Psych 101…any large grouping of folks (FAA, DOD, Congress, Civilian Pilots, bloggers/commenters) has those who earnestly want good results, those who will go with the flow, and those who can’t stand to do anything less than the minimum. I won’t estimate the percentages. The key is for the folks that want change to engage the folks that want to help without pushing them into the “minimum” camp.

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