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Flight planning can be a complicated task. Many components are involved, and the requirements and situation can change quickly. Airspace restrictions are one vital part of this. These vary significantly between countries. While some airspace is permanently restricted and marked on maps, other restrictions can be introduced at any time and with short notice.


Staying aware of airspace restrictions

It is vital for flight planners and pilots to be aware of airspace restrictions. These are areas where aircraft movement is either permanently restricted or temporary restrictions are put in place. This could be to protect key ground locations, or as a result of sensitive or dangerous conditions.

The penalties for incorrectly entering restricted airspace will vary around the world and between areas. Pilots may just be warned and instructed to leave, but violation could result in penalties, criminal charges, or at worst, military involvement. Clearly, knowledge and avoidance of such restricted airspace are key.

Permanent airspace restrictions

Firstly, and most obviously, there are permanent airspace restrictions. These – as the name suggests – are in place at all times. There are different types of restrictions. Some will apply to all aircraft at all times; others may apply to certain aircraft types or only apply at certain elevations.

These restrictions will usually be marked on aeronautical maps (as long as maps are up to date, of course). Permanently prohibited airspace will be marked on maps with a “P” designator. The designator “R” indicate restricted airspace, which may require approval or be subject to variation with NOTAMs.

The use of permanently prohibited airspace differs around the world. For example, permanent restrictions in the US apply to key government sites, including the White House and Capitol in Washington, several military sites, and the Kennedy Space Centre. The UK has restrictions over specific key government sites in London and nuclear-related installations. Some countries, such as Australia, have no permanent restrictions.

Temporary restrictions and NOTAMs

Airspace restrictions can be introduced at any time, for many different reasons. These could restrict entry for certain aircraft types or reasons, and could be in place for any length of time.

Fortunately, there is a robust international system in place to deal with this. Pilots will be notified of any new airspace restrictions through a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) or TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) notice. Checking these is a vital part of any pre-flight planning.

Temporary NOTAMs or TFRs can cover many different situations. They could be related to specific events on the ground (such as high capacity sports events or political gatherings), air shows, military exercises, and natural hazards such as volcanic eruptions. In the US, they are commonly issued to coincide with VIP or Presidential travel.

These days checking NOTAMs is much easier, as they are available quickly and easily online. The main official site for the US is the FAA FNS NOTAM search, and the UK has a similar service run by NATS. Various third parties also provide restrictions notification. NOTAM Info is a particularly useful one, covering many countries and with useful embedded maps. ForeFlight is another service that is popular with pilots.

Avoiding dangerous airspace

Another consideration in restricted airspace is dangerous airspace or flying over conflict areas. In some cases, authorities may issue NOTAMs for this, but in other cases, it is up to airlines or operators to take decisions to restrict flying. Governments and regulators may issue guidance as well.

War or unrest on the ground, civil unrest, military build-up or threat of war are all considered by governments and operators. Any activities like this would likely give rise to a restriction on flights for their safety.

It can be devastating to get this wrong. You will recall the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft over Ukraine. Warnings had been issued for nearby airspace but did not include the route of this aircraft. Soon after the incident, Ukraine closed the airspace, and governments put long-lasting restrictions in place.

Use of a flight planning service – especially for international flights

Although checking NOTAMs and restrictions has been made much easier by online publishing and easy access, airspace restrictions remain a complex area. Understanding when and how restrictions apply can be complex, and they can change quickly in some areas.

However you carry out pre-flight planning, checking restrictions is a vital part of it. This can, of course, also affect the route and flight plan created. Some pilots and operators will choose to handle this themselves, but there are many advantages of using a flight planning service. Specialists in specific areas or regions will know about current or planned restrictions and be up to date with any government guidance. This can make planning faster, more accurate and above all, safer.

Final Thoughts

Flight restrictions and airspace changes are vital in flight planning and safe flying. All flight operators and pilots need to stay aware of these restrictions and cannot just rely on maps for the latest information.

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