A federal district judge ruled Friday that a list of private planes whose flights are blocked from the public view should be released under the Freedom of Information Act.
We at ProPublica have been seeking the list since December 2008 after the CEOs of the Big 3 automakers flew to Washington, D.C., on corporate jets to ask Congress for financial help.
The flights became known because reporters and members of the public were able to track the jets on Web sites that provide real-time information from the Federal Aviation Administration. The bad publicity led GM to try to prevent the public from tracking its planes in the future.
Under the little-known Block Aircraft Registration Request Program, companies can request that their flights be kept secret to protect the security of their executives and to prevent disclosure of business trips that could affect stock prices or give competitors an edge about potential deals.
After the GM incident, ProPublica filed a public records request to find out which other companies had tried to block their planes. The list contains only tail numbers and would not provide any information about the flights themselves.
The FAA agreed to release the list in June. But the National Business Aviation Association filed a lawsuit to block it.
The group argued that the list of tail numbers was commercial information because it could allow competitors to track historical data on where executives have traveled to and thereby gain sensitive information about the companies’ operations. It also argued that the past information could jeopardize the security of executives.
But Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that the argument was overly expansive and outweighed by the public’s right to taxpayer-funded government records. Even if someone were to use the list to look up past flights, it would not allow the public to determine who was on the flight or what the business purpose was, she said.
Tail numbers themselves are readily searchable by owner on the FAA’s Web site, allowing any member of the public to track the same historical information about a company’s flights. And the association has long argued that general aviation does not represent a significant security threat.
“We are delighted that the court upheld the FAA’s determination and look forward to the prompt release of these records, which are clearly a subject of public interest,” said Richard Tofel, general manager of ProPublica.
The business aviation association said in a press release that it was disappointed with the judge’s decision.
“Obviously, NBAA views this as an unwise decision on the part of the court,” said Bob Lamond, the association’s director of air traffic services. “Nevertheless, our legal counsel has advised us that further appeals on the matter would not likely be productive.”