The NFL, MLB and NASCAR have been lobbying lawmakers this past week to alter a bill before the U.S. Senate that would loosen flight restrictions over the nation’s major stadiums and raceways for the first time since 9/11.
“I’m very worried,” said Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s senior vice president of security. “Aircraft can be used as a weapon and that is one of the top concerns that we’ve had for 20 years.”
Flight restrictions were first put into place over stadiums following 9/11. Currently, the FAA issues a temporary flight restriction above any stadium or raceway that seats more than 30,000 people from one hour before the event until one hour after, creating a no-fly zone 3,000 feet above and three nautical miles from the center of the stadium. The restrictions do not apply to authorized flights engaged by law enforcement, air ambulances and the military.
But when the House of Representatives approved the new FAA Reauthorization Act this summer in a 351-69 vote, it also allowed the FAA to grant a flight waiver within three-quarters of a mile of a stadium during game day.
The change was championed by Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri), the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure and an avid pilot and general aviation enthusiast.
“It’s simply wrong to suggest that existing flight restrictions have any connection to preventing terrorism,” Graves told ESPN in a statement. “It’s also wrong that a construction crew wanting to use a drone to inspect a roof three miles away — just to give an example — has to wait until a ballgame is over to do their job, or else they’re breaking federal law.”
Instead, Graves explained, the FAA would issue waivers on a case-by-case basis in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.
“The FAA already gives waivers for team owners and special guests flying their helicopters and private planes near a stadium, so why should it be any different for the rest of the general public who can also demonstrate a clear need and meet the requirements for obtaining a waiver?”
Graves questioned the need for the 3-mile zone after the Cleveland Air Show was temporarily grounded when a rained-out Cleveland Guardians baseball game was rescheduled for the same day.
Small businesses have been pushing for the change, according to a transportation committee staffer assisting Graves with the legislation. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which has more than 300,000 members and represents the interests of general aviation, told ESPN it also supports the new provision.
“There was a meeting we had with one of the leagues who called the airspace ‘our airspace.’ It’s not the league’s airspace, it’s the public’s airspace,” the committee staffer told ESPN. “We want to find a way forward that ensures safety and security for the stadium and attendees but also allows folks to access the airspace if they have a legitimate and valid reason to be there.”
The bill is now making its way through the Senate. The current FAA authorization expires on Sept. 30.