U.S. Ramps Up Airspace Restrictions for New Year’s Eve

The announcement followed Monday’s decision by Homeland Security officials to require certain international passenger and cargo flights to carry “trained, armed, government law enforcement officers” when flying to, from and over the United States.

The government has approved the temporary flight restrictions, known as TFRs, over parts of Washington, Las Vegas, New York City and downtown Chicago, a department spokeswoman said.

“We granted requests for TFRs … over [some] areas for New Year’s Eve,” department spokeswoman Rachael Sunbarger said.

New York City’s Times Square and the Strip in Las Vegas are popular sites for New Year’s Eve celebrations, traditionally attracting hundreds of thousands of revelers.

Flights over downtown Chicago have been restricted under a TFR since Dec. 24, and there have been restrictions over Washington’s airspace in place since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The restrictions will apply to chartered flights and smaller personal aircraft, but not to commercial and military flights, Sunbarger said, according to wire reports.

Restrictions will also be in place during most holiday football bowl games, including the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told the CBS “Early Show” on Tuesday that military aircraft would be patrolling U.S. skies as part of the increased security measures.

“We will have in play … not only temporary flight restrictions over cities but we will have aviation patrolling the skies and on alert,” Ridge told the program.

Ridge also told CBS that increased threat reports involving foreign flights led to Monday’s decision to require armed sky marshals on certain international flights.

“[W]e’ve added several layers of security to domestic flights and domestic air travel. And we’ve been working with our international partners, because international aviation security isn’t just a priority for the United States. It needs to be an international priority,” he said.

“We know that the threat level has been raised because of a reporting stream that suggests that within the holiday period, al-Qaida [is] continuing to have interest in major cities and large gatherings and critical infrastructure,” said Ridge.

Foreign airlines that do not provide marshals when requested to do so may be refused access to American airspace.

“Any sovereign government retains the right to revoke the privilege of flying to and from a country or even over their airspace. So ultimately a denial of access is the leverage that you have,” Ridge said during a Monday press conference.

David O’Connor, regional director in Washington of the International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents most international carriers, told The New York Times that the new American requirement to supply air marshals was likely to cause concern among some overseas governments and airliners.

“You don’t want a shootout on an airplane, and historically, our preference has always been to stop the terrorists before they get on the aircraft,” O’Connor said. “But this is the way the United States is going, and we’ll certainly cooperate. Whether there are better ways, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Ridge said Monday that the heightened security alerts put in place since the national terror alert was raised nine days ago from “code yellow” or elevated to “code orange” or high should not deter Americans from taking part in New Year’s celebrations.

“Let me also underscore that these kinds of security actions are being put in place to better protect you as you prepare for travel for New Year’s Eve celebrations, bowl games — whatever your plans may be,” said Ridge.

Ridge said the code orange alert level will last at least through New Year’s and perhaps longer, depending on available intelligence.

Last week, six Air France flights from Paris to Los Angeles were cancelled after intelligence indicated some of the passengers listed on the flight manifests posed a potential terror threat.

Ridge cited those cancellations as an example of how governments can work together to combat terrorism.

“We shared information with people who could act upon it, and we are grateful that officials in France responded immediately,” Ridge said at the Monday press conference.