What You Need to Know about FAA Special-Route Clearances
Operators with aircraft registered in certain counties require both a TSA waiver and special FAA route clearance when flying to the U.S. or over U.S. airspace. This adds additional complexity and lead time to the flight-planning process and may limit your routing options. ATC will automatically flag all flights through U.S. airspace of operators from the seven current ‘special interest’ countries, and there are repercussions such as being banned from U.S. airspace if the process is not done correctly. The good news is that FAA is accommodating and easy to work with in terms of special-route clearance and revisions, and your 3rd-party provider can assist in successfully navigating regulatory requirements.
1. What is an FAA special-route clearance?
This is a routing clearance given by the FAA for aircraft registered in special interest countries. A current list of special interest countries includes: People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, and Syria. This process, which applies to private, charter, and scheduled commercial flights, started in 2001 and goes hand in hand with TSA waivers. Special-route clearance covers your departure and arrival points and specifies all waypoints in between.
2. When is special-route clearance required?
Anytime an aircraft registered in a special interest country uses U.S. airspace, including overflying and landing in the U.S. This covers U.S. territories including: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Mariana Islands. It’s important to note that, in the case of China, a special-route clearance is not applicable to aircraft registered in Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan.
3. Why is such a clearance required?
FAA and TSA want to be able to track the routing of aircraft registered to special interest countries when they overfly or land in the U.S. To ensure that such aircraft follow approved routings, the FAA will track aircraft throughout the entire flight within U.S. territory. Operators must follow exact point-to-point routings and cannot deviate at all. If there’s any routing deviation, the 3rd-party provider or operator filing the flight plan will be notified and warnings will be given. Although no fines have been issued to date, this does not mean that FAA will not fine an operator for such a deviation.
4. What’s the process for obtaining a special-route clearance?
A TSA waiver request is submitted to TSA, and concurrently a routing request is sent to the FAA, where it will be forwarded to the Air Traffic System Operations Security department. After TSA does its checks, the FAA will look over the TSA waiver and proposed routing to ensure that all information correlates and matches. In almost all cases, the FAA modifies the routing request. The FAA then sends the waiver back to TSA for final checks prior to waiver approval.
5. What are lead time requirements?
A TSA waiver, or revision to a TSA waiver, requires five business days to process. Short- notice requests – anything less than five working days – are up to the discretion of TSA. TSA is only open Monday-Friday EST 0700-1700 local and closed on weekends and bank holidays.
A FAA special-route request can usually be processed in just a few hours and the FAA department is available 24/7. During evenings and weekends, however, staffing level is lower and routing requests may be processed slower. Keep in mind that if an operator changes departure or arrival points, the TSA waiver may have to be resubmitted. In this case, a new special-route request will not be approved by FAA until a new TSA waiver has been requested and processed.
6. What information is needed to process a TSA waiver?
A TSA waiver requires the following information on a special form:
- ✈ Aircraft description
- ✈ Type of aircraft
- ✈ Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW)
- ✈ Call sign and tail number
- ✈ Crew and passenger info
- ✈ Departure point(s)
- ✈ Arrival point(s) in the U.S.
- ✈ Company information
- ✈ Security statement
- ✈ Purpose of flight
- ✈ Digitally signed/dated
All information is submitted online. Confirming that passports will be checked usually suffices for the required security statement. For overflights, TSA waivers list departure and destination points outside the U.S. The actual TSA-waiver authorization will only list pilots and not passengers or other crew members.
7. What information is needed to process an FAA special-route request?
FAA special-route requests are submitted by e-mail in a special format with:
- ✈ Operator information
- ✈ Itinerary (including date and time of departure and arrival and all waypoints for the flight plan)
- ✈ Aircraft information (type, tail number, and call sign if using one)
No crew or passenger information is required for a special-route request. FAA will normally hold your special-route approval until 48 hours out to ensure that the approved routing avoids issues with NOTAMS and closures, etc. The special-route confirmation will be received via e-mail. The operator or 3rd-party provider must file the flight plan exactly as authorized on special-route confirmation, but no notes need to be added to remarks 18 on the flight plan. If an operator needs to deviate from the approved route due to circumstances such as weather, the FAA needs to be advised.
8. How long is the special-route clearance valid?
FAA special-route clearance has a validity period of -24/+72 hours. If there’s any delay beyond this deviation, a new special-routing request must be submitted.
9. What is unique regarding the routing involved with a special-route clearance?
With the special-route clearance process, the operator will not always get the desired/requested routing. If an operator does not like the approved FAA routing, a request may be made to modify the routing, but operators have no control over ultimate routing. If weather or winds become a factor, the FAA is usually accommodating in terms of route modification. If an operator flying an aircraft registered in a special interest country operates in the U.S. without required special-route clearance, the operator may be subject to fines or banned from U.S. airspace.
10. What are some additional tips pertaining to the special clearance?
Lead time issues for operators required to use special-route clearance have more to do with the TSA waiver rather than special-route clearance approval. So long as you have a valid TSA waiver, a special-route clearance can be obtained within a short turnaround. Best practice for operators with aircraft registered in special interest countries who fly frequently to the U.S. is to obtain a multi-entry TSA waiver for 89 days, which is the maximum duration at this time. You should include as many non-U.S. departure and U.S. arrival points as possible in your TSA waiver request, as any revision requires a new TSA waiver application and approval.
FAA special-route clearance is a manageable and straightforward process, particularly for operators working with experienced 3rd-party providers. While special-route clearance does add complexity to the flight planning process – and you’ll very rarely get the actual routing you request – the FAA is easy to work with, available 24/7, and accommodating regarding re-routing due to day of operation, adverse weather, and upper wind scenarios.
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