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.
Sports leagues and others opposed to shrinking the no-fly zones say officials would have too little time -- some estimate less than a minute -- to respond to a potential security problem. There are a number of permanent air restrictions, including a 15-mile buffer around the U.S. Capitol complex.
"You can maximize your safety by having those flight plans," said Rep. Diana DeGette, (D-Colorado). "After Sept. 11, we put a perimeter around the US Capitol complex, and from time to time, we will have a plane that breaches our airspace. We're able to immediately see that and respond. It's the same thing."
The leagues and a number of House members were caught unaware by the change, according to DeGette.
"It surprised everybody because it was slid into the bill and people didn't know it was there until very late in the process," DeGette told ESPN.
The new language is contained within a half-page section of a bill that is more than 700 pages long. According to DeGette, the Biden administration noted the change about a week after the opportunity for introducing amendments had passed.
"The bill could introduce unnecessary risks to those attending major sporting events if the effectiveness of safety and security buffers currently provided by temporary flight restrictions were to be decreased," according to a July 17 statement by the White House.
A day later, the NFL, MLB, NASCAR and the NCAA circulated a letter to Congress, expressing concern that the new rules would put millions of fans at risk. Lifting the current restrictions "complicates the airspace over stadiums, compromises public safety and security, and courts potential disaster," the letter said.
In addition to terrorism, Lanier told ESPN she is equally concerned about accidents. "A lot of individuals and others will want to fly over large crowds to advertise. And in that congested airspace, an accident is very much a concern," said Lanier, who was the chief of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department during 9/11.
She noted the FAA already has a waiver process in place to allow a limited number of authorized aircraft to photograph, advertise or otherwise work near stadiums, which she said the NFL does not control.
DeGette, whose district includes Empower Field at Mile High Stadium and Coors Field in Denver, is now spearheading a letter to the Senate asking her colleagues to strip the provision from its version of the bill. Forty-eight House members, including six Republicans, signed the letter sent to the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday.
"Congress hasn't lost its mind," the committee staffer working with Graves told ESPN in response to the criticism, emphasizing that planes below 3,000 feet will still not be allowed to fly directly over stadiums.
"Nobody should be unnecessarily raising fears here, and I welcome a frank discussion with sports leagues about the practical impacts of existing flight restrictions and how Congress can best ensure both the safety of stadium-goers and the public's right to access our nation's airspace," Graves said in his statement.
But DeGette told ESPN this shouldn't even be a topic up for debate. "I was in Congress on Sept. 11 and we learned terrorists will look to take advantage of vulnerabilities we didn't even think about."