Journalism in the Public Interest

Business Jet Group Tries to Block FOIA Request

June 17, 2009: This post has been corrected.

Former GM CEO Rick Wagoner (Getty Images) testifies before Congress on Nov. 18, 2008 after arriving in Washington, D.C. on a Gulfstream IV corporate jet (Wikimedia Commons). After being criticized for traveling by private jet, General Motors asked aviation regulators to prevent public tracking of its aircraft.

Remember last fall when the CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler flew on corporate jets to Washington, D.C., to plead for a taxpayer bailout? The resulting bad publicity prompted GM to try to prevent the public from tracking its planes in databases compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That got ProPublica interested in how many other companies had asked the FAA to excise their planes’ tail numbers from records tracking private flights. So in December, ProPublica filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a complete listing.

Earlier this month, the FAA concluded that the information was public and planned to release the list on Tuesday. But on Monday, an organization representing corporate jet users went to court to block the release of the records. 

The National Business Aviation Association filed a motion (PDF) for a temporary restraining order on Monday in federal district court in Washington, D.C. The group, which learned of the request from the FAA, argues that the records should be exempt from disclosure because they contain confidential commercial information that was submitted voluntarily.

Releasing the list would also generate a higher level of interest in the companies that had tried to block public knowledge of their aircrafts’ movements, it said.

“Upon learning that a specific aircraft tail number is included in the [blocked] list, a member of the public could readily track down the identity of the owner (through the FAA’s public aircraft registry database) and attempt to investigate the reason the owner seeks blocking of the aircraft data,” Steven Brown, the association’s senior vice president wrote in a March letter objecting to the FOIA request.

The information ProPublica is seeking would include the company’s name and address and the tail numbers of all the planes it wants blocked. The public already can research airplane ownership using the aircraft registry posted on the FAA’s Web site.

To manage the nation’s air traffic, the FAA collects information from all planes that use the public airspace, including which airports the planes fly into and out of. The flight plans are public and some groups have posted them on their Web sites.

But under a little-known program called the Block Aircraft Registration Request Program, companies can request that their information be kept hidden to protect the security of their executives or to prevent disclosure of business trips that might affect stock prices.

Companies make the request through the business aviation association, which sends them to FAA each month. The FAA then reviews the requests and removes the planes from the public database.

The FAA reviewed the association’s objections to ProPublica’s FOIA request and determined on June 1 that the information did not qualify for an exemption.

“The NBAA list is not a trade secret, nor is it commercial or financial information within the meaning of the FOIA,” wrote Carol A. Might, director of system operations litigation.

The FAA stands by its position, spokeswoman Laura Brown said Tuesday. In court, a Justice Department lawyer representing the FAA agreed to withhold the list until the judge can hear arguments from both sides.

“We were pleased to learn earlier today that the FAA agrees that these documents should be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act,” said Richard J. Tofel, general manager of ProPublica. “We can’t imagine why the list of companies that want to keep the movements of their aircraft a secret should itself be a secret. We’ve retained counsel to evaluate NBAA’s lawsuit, and are considering our legal options.”

Mark Duell, vice president of air traffic Web site, said he wasn’t aware of any incidents in which an executive’s safety or competitive interests were jeopardized by the information his company publishes online.

“All the flights within the national airspace are using resources being paid for by everyone since it’s publicly funded,” he said. “It’s a freedom of information and transparency issue to us.”

The business aviation association did not comment further on its attempt to prevent the release of records, but released a statement supporting the blocked aircraft program.

The program is the result of years of negotiations with the FAA. In 1995, several private plane groups petitioned the FAA to limit the air traffic data to a need-to-know basis. With the Internet causing the number of Web sites posting the data proliferating, the association began working with the FAA on a system to protect the privacy of business jet users.

“The [BARR] Program was established over a decade ago in response to recognized security concerns and competitive considerations,” spokesman Dan Hubbard said in a statement. “NBAA has long supported the BARR program and believes the reasons for its creation remain relevant today, given that access to information about certain flights can be used to inappropriately impact the competitive landscape.”

Correction: This post originally misstated the name of the BARR Program as “Blocked Aircraft Registration Request.” BARR stands for “Block Aircraft Registration Request.”

Maintaining the privacy of business or general aviation aircraft movements is as it should be.  The purpose of gathering aircraft movement information in the FAA’s databases is for air traffic control, not public dissemination.  Claiming that it’s the public’s right to know because public funds are used in the operation of the national airspace is the logical equivalent of requiring every car to contain tracking equipment so that all car movements can become public knowledge, because “they’re using the national roadspace”.  I for one have no desire to live within such an Orwellian scenario.  Releasing information of airliner movements makes sense - they’re on scheduled flights, going between known city pairs, and serving the public.  People want to know when those flights are arriving and departing, and whether any delays are being incurred.  But they don’t go to arbitrary destinations.  Business aircraft, on the other hand, do go to “arbitrary” destinations as they are being operated as private vehicles, and it is the right of the owners to go to whichever destination they choose.  It’s called freedom.  What “right” does the public have to know of the movements of these aircraft, just because they’re required to communicate (for safety’s sake) with a federal bureaucracy?!?  ProPublica’s flat-out wrong on this one.

Actually, a-tex, all we’re seeking at ProPublica is, in effect, a list of companies that have asked to have their planes operate in secret. It doesn’t seem to us that there should be a secret list of those flying secretly—THAT’S Orwellian. Granting our request—which the FAA says is required by law—wouldn’t limit any plane owner’s freedom to operate in any way.

Joseph Parker

June 17, 2009, 3:20 p.m.

I can only imagine that those wanting to keep secret their flights have something to hide.

So what’s next?  Do I have a right to know where YOU are going every time you pull in and out of the driveway? Is it MY business because I helped pay for the roads you travel on?  This equates to NO One’s right to have any privacy, security, and no more company secrets like new products being developed.  a-tex is absolutely correct, where corporate aircraft go in the US airspace—or anywhere else in the world is no one’s business but the passengers onboard, Air Traffic Control and US Customs IF the aircraft crosses the border.  The general Public has absolutely NO RIGHT to intrude on corporate privacy be it in the office, the limo, rental car, corporate jet or helicopter.  Companies that utilize corporate aircraft do so for the security it provides, and the flexibility of destinations that they can go to on their own time schedule.  Those companies are usually the ones that have the competitive edge and grow faster than their competition that does not utilize corporate aircraft.  Sure, the competition and the private-jet-bashers want to know where they are going and when, but “wanting to know” does not give them the “right”.  Good for NBAA stepping up and blocking ProPublica!  The vast majority of GA aircraft are not blocked and can be viewed when in flight, but I’ll defend the right to block a registration number from prying eyes when the company warrants it.  To those who think otherwise, step right up here for your personal tracking device so prying eyes can view your every move on our highways, sidewalks and in public buildings.

Richard Tofel -

You write, “....all we’re seeking at ProPublica is, in effect, a list of companies that have asked to have their planes operate in secret.”  They are not operating their aircraft in secret.  They are operating them out in the open and in accordance with the regulations set forth by the FAA.  But you seek to label them “secret” within your so-called reporting in order to vilify their use.  And there is no “secret list” - that’s retarded.  Their N-numbers have been removed from the reported list at their request in order to protect their privacy (a great concept, you ought to give it some thought).  You want to know where they are going?  Ask them.  Better yet, follow them in your own damn jet.

S Anderson -

Thanks, and spot on!

If the FAA & other agencies don’t wish to comply with a FOIA request of PROPUBLICA & ACLU someone will leak the information or compile a list by extra-legal means & release it gratis or for a fee.  Someone is bound to leak the list or compile a list which is more complete than the fed’s list.

Timothy McCormick

June 17, 2009, 6:46 p.m.

The right to privacy ends when private conveyances are used on public spaces.
Period. Automobiles are plate identified. Planes are marked with FAA identification.
Any usage of these conveyances on public spaces can/or/should be recorded and reported as public record and made available via freedom of information requests.

The use of public airspace requires extraordinary cooperation between private and public entities. If the corporate jet lobby gets too brazen the general public is going
to start questioning the cost and special considerations that these elite transportation devices are eliciting.

The special status of corporate jet considerations portray a sense of entitlement that is very rarely deserved.

Businesses and any other entity or individual have every right to be able to conduct their personal agenda without everyone and their brother knowing about it. Anyone who thinks public knowledge of flight activity has no impact on a company’s ability to conduct business just has to look back a few years when the (then) owner of the Miami Dolphins was conducting a new Head Coach search. The media was able to track his private aircraft to the destination airport, deduct which potential candidate was available at that particular city and tell the whole world who they speculate is being interviewed. Does anyone really think other teams who needed a Head Coach didn’t use this information to get the “jump” on the Dolphins?

The same information can be used by another business to affect the outcome of a potential sale, purchase, merger, IPO, stock buy back, etc.

The backlash the business and general aviation has gotten from the current Government and media is totally unwarrented. Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Public has absolutely no idea what goes on in the daily business community that allows this Country to keep ahead of our competitors. If they actually paid attention in school, worked hard and didn’t wait for the Government to bail them out and give them a free ride, can you imagine how strong this Country would be?

Nelson Robison

June 18, 2009, 7:57 p.m.

If unknown to the general public, there are computer programs that can access through the internet the ‘traffic’ that the FAA controls.
Compiling a list of corporate jets would be the easiest thing in the world, for known by their tail numbers, jets can be tracked without any problem on the part of the listener to the radio chatter that is a common part of all public and private aircraft flights.
By the way, all your movements are now tracked by the government and corporate interests through means of an installed ‘black box,’ in your cars undercarriage. If you think honestly that the government does not know, you live in a fool’s world of imagination.
Your cellphone is also a tracking device, because of the GPS location, so that you can make calls with your phone, outside and inside of your ‘calling area.’
Why, this fuss about privacy? Because the corporatocracy
wants to keep secret their maniacal plans to control your movements and what you are watching, listening to, reading, surfing on the internet and all other aspects of your life that currently you think are private.
Big Brother is out there watching, Big Brother is just not the government, but the corporate elite of the world that use information to predict the next big wave.
We cannot get away with the fact that there is no privacy anymore. We live in a world of information, tracked by corporate interests and the government, plain and simple.

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