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Waiting for Obama

September 3, 2010

Stancie and I had planned to visit Martha’s Vineyard last week for an event that had been scheduled for months. It would be easy to hop over to MVY from our home base at White Plains for the day and depart the following afternoon. We wouldn’t endure any of the ferry trips or other slogs that our friends had to endure to get to the island. A great benefit of being a pilot.

But then President Obama and his family announced plans to vacation on the Vineyard, as people here in the New York area say. Just as they call New York “the city” as though it were the only one in the country, none of them would put Martha’s in front the THE Vineyard. After all, for New Yorkers there is only one city, and one Vineyard. And the Vineyard is the place to be in August.

The TSA placed the standard 30 mile VIP TFR over Martha’s Vineyard for the entire Obama vacation, including the days of our planned visit. Like all of us, I have dealt with TFRs in the past, but always by using an airport that is outside the 10 mile inner ring. To use those airports only requires a normal IFR arrival and departure.

But the TFR this time was centered on MVY airport. Since Martha’s Vineyard is a small island, the inner ring wiped out any possibility of landing on the island without pre-clearance from the TSA. I would need to apply for a waiver from the TSA, and then Stancie and I and our airplane would have to be “screened” by TSA personnel at an approved gateway airport. The only positive note is that White Plains was a gateway airport for the Vineyard so we would only need to taxi across the field to meet the TSA and their search equipment.

I asked the people here at FltPlan.com for advice on how to deal with the TFR and the waiver process. The advice was that it’s possible to get the waiver by filling out an online form, but they recommended I just land somewhere else and take the ferry. “You never know what the TSA will do when it comes to closing the airport unannounced and you could get stuck there,” one FltPlan.com expert told me.

But, I pressed on. The TSA waiver form is lengthy and you need all information on yourself and passengers including passport numbers, birthdates and so on. One question I laughed at was “how will you positively identify your passenger.” I wrote “is 30 years of marriage enough?” I hoped the TSA had at least a small sense of humor.

I hit enter on the TSA site and shortly an email arrived saying my waiver request had been received. I was also told to expect it to take up to five business days to issue the waiver. And that was it. I didn’t hear anything more from the TSA, no questions, no requests for more information, or any hint that the waiver would be approved.

As days went by—more than the five I was told to expect—Stancie and I gave up and changed plans for the trip. Then, late in the day before I had asked for permission to fly into MVY the phone rings and the caller ID shows U.S. Government. I had not seen the caller ID before.

It was a Customs agent calling to ask what time I wanted to be screened for the flight to Martha’s Vineyard tomorrow. I told her I had no idea the trip had been approved and had changed my plans. It turns out that the TSA tells Customs the waiver is approved and gives them an approval number but I was told nothing. I guess I only hear directly from TSA if I had not been approved.

So, the TSA system worked, sort of. If I had known to expect the waiver approval we could have made the trip. At least I think we could have. Of course there was another waiver required to depart MVY and I don’t know if that had been, or would be issued. 

Friends flew out of MVY on Cape Air, the Cessna 402 airline, the day we expected to arrive. They told us later the airport was deserted. “Where were all of the private airplanes and business jets we always see there in August?” they asked. I now know at least part of the reason why nobody flew their airplanes to MVY that week.

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