Journalism in the Public Interest

Gov’t Considering Rolling Back Rule Allowing Private Planes to Keep Flights Secret

Under a plan the Department of Transportation is reportedly considering, most private plane owners will no longer be able to prevent the public from tracking their flights. 


(Credit: marcokalmann/Flickr)

Most private plane owners would no longer be able to prevent the public from tracking their flights in real time under a new policy being considered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a trade group.

As we reported last year, plane owners can currently keep their flight information secret for any reason by simply having the trade group send a request to the Federal Aviation Administration. While that policy was created for security and competitive business concerns, ProPublica found a number of individuals and companies that signed up for the program after receiving bad publicity.

Among them were a televangelist facing a congressional inquiry, governors who had been questioned about personal trips on state planes, college athletic programs seeking to hide recruiting trips and Fortune 500 companies that had received government bailouts.

Now, the government is considering limiting the program to plane owners who can prove a legitimate security concern, Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, said in a letter posted Monday on the group's website.

When we asked FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown about the letter, she said only that the agency is "reevaluating" the program. The letter, and the potential policy change, were first reported Monday night by Politico.

Use of the national airspace is generally considered public information because pilots -- whether airline captains or recreational fliers -- rely on a system of air traffic controllers, radars, runways and towers that are paid for or subsidized by taxpayers. As a result, flight data is collected by the FAA in its air traffic control system.

The program allowing owners to block the information was created in 2000 after private plane groups complained to Congress about a number of websites posting real-time government data of planes' locations and flight schedules.

A measure attached to an FAA reauthorization bill that year required websites that use the data to exclude any aircraft upon FAA request. But over the years the process has changed with the business aviation association telling the FAA and websites which planes to take out of the system.

Plane owners have two options for keeping their flights secret. In one, the aviation association sends a "block" list to the FAA, which removes the planes from data released to the flight-tracking websites. In the other, the trade group sends a list directly to the websites, which are bound by FAA agreement to hide the planes.

ProPublica obtained the FAA version of the block list through the Freedom of Information Act last year after a judge ruled against a lawsuit by the business aviation group seeking to keep the list confidential.

In his letter Monday, National Business Aviation Association's Bolen said the "onerous limitations" could go into effect as early as Feb. 15. As of last month, however, the group stopped accepting new block requests. He said the group has conveyed its concerns directly to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and have requested another meeting with him this week.

It's unclear if the government is considering the group's argument that disclosure of flights could jeopardize business deals and affect stock prices. But the group does seem to be focused on how the exemption for security will be granted. It recently sent its members a survey asking them if they had employees who qualified under Internal Revenue Service rules to receive a tax deduction for employer-provided transportation for security concerns.

The IRS rules use a strict standard requiring a specific "business-oriented security concern," such as a threat of death or kidnapping or a recent history of terrorist activity in the area where the employee is working. To qualify for the deduction, the employee must have an overall security program in which bodyguards or chauffeurs are provided on a 24-hour basis when the employee is both at work and at home.

Update (5 p.m.): We just heard from the National Business Aviation Association and the group said it is now continuing to process requests to block planes.

“Among them were a televangelist facing a congressional inquiry”  So was it established in testimony that Jesus was his copilot?  I didn’t think JC rolled like that.

Why should every jackass know, where Mrs. Palin is flying to? The same applies also to Mr.Obama…

This is excellent news. Use a public resource (US airspace, air traffic control system, navigation aids, and airports/runways), undergo publication of said public data.

It isn’t Mr. Obama, it is President Obama or Mr. President.

Everyone knows where the President is flying (though not always in real time) because he is flying on the citizens dime, acting on our behalf.

Now we don’t know the passenger list of private aircraft. But the origination and destination of flights of an aircraft owned by Mrs. Palin should be public knowledge, because those flights are safely facilitated by a government financed network of radar, air traffic controllers, and flight service offices which collect that data.

Personally, I don’t think ANY aircraft owner or operator should be allowed to remove their aircraft operations from the FAA database, and only those owners who can show a valid security reason should be allowed to prevent the publishing of the operating data of their aircraft for only 24 hours.

Kevin A. McDonald

Feb. 8, 2011, 6:48 p.m.

I’m watched and so is everyone else.

@colinwn: Sorry, but in my country even elected people still have their family name and are also called with. And more important: Our leaders do NOT need any bodygards when they are within the public!!!
By the way: When I travelled the first time to the US in 1967 I had to pay 4.40 Swiss Francs for one Dollar. Today I have to pay 0.95 Francs..!  And more important: A retired person has a minimum pension of CHF 2’200.—a month AND EVERYBODY holds an insurance against sickness. My country exists since 1291 and we NEVER LOST A WAR in Europe!

lolll…thinkin’ it unlikely that folks like the Koch brothers and their ilk want it known when they are getting together to plot against the American people and democracy.

Some Republican members of Congress are about to receive some serious money, ‘cuz the type of folks who make up the true right aren’t about to stoop to riding commercial just to conceal their scheming among the masses.

A little defunding or rule rewriting, and the right is ollie-ollie-in-free again.

David Coleman

Feb. 8, 2011, 10:44 p.m.

There is a very slippery slope when it comes to the right to privacy. I suspect that many folks might take a different position on this issue if the government mandated that transponders be installed in every car and your movements could be freely tracked at anytime by anybody.

Just because some of these folks are jerk offs and fat cats, doesn’t mean we should allow the camels nose under the tent when it comes to our rights as citizens. 

In any case, not everyone that flies small planes are evil bastards. Some of them are small business guys that fly themselves, and employ real folks like you and me. They simply want to block movements from the competition. Why is that not in the public interest?

Private aircraft use facilities paid for by taxpayers and by fuel taxes.  So do private automobiles.  So everyone’s OK with having their destination, route and schedule made public whent they travel in their cars, right? 

Pilots are just regular people who have addiction to their avocation (or vocation) just like boaters.  Their vehicles can be used for evil purposes.  So can a boat or a car.  By far the majority are not.  A light airplane is a very poor vehicle for terrorism (the purported reason for extreme scrutiny), as its carrying capacity for cargo and fuel is low.

Let’s get a grip and approach the problem of terrorism rationally.

Richard L. Lindberg

Feb. 9, 2011, 10:16 a.m.

This would be an oenerous rule on private pilots who fly for pleasure. While many file flight plans for long trips, they do not do so for shorter trips. Where a private pilot flies is only a matter for the FAA in case there is an emergency.

Karl Schneider

Feb. 9, 2011, 1:12 p.m.

Richard, the proposed change does not require any private flights to have flight plans*, it only makes them, when filed, available to the public.  There has been no demand to provide exact real-time data…what is now available is subject to a delay and that is sufficient to maintain security.  As a commercial pilot, I have no problem with the destinations of flights using public facilities being public information.

* It is true, however, that many kinds of airplanes, jets in particular, rarely fly without an IFR flight plan, the nature of their flight envelopes necessitates traveling in controlled airspace to achieve any degree of utility.

Karl Schneider

Feb. 9, 2011, 1:23 p.m.

Barbara:  recreational flights typically aren’t on flight plans which are not required in most places under 18000 feet and VMC (reasonably clear “visual meteorological conditions’.)  Those aren’t being ‘tracked’ in any way nor are their locations and routes known to FAA or anybody else.

Dustin Flanigan

Feb. 9, 2011, 5:03 p.m.

Roads are public and taxpayer-subsidized. EZ-Pass lanes require registration with the state DOT. So why not allow everyone to track the movements of every driver?

Big brother is watching you! After all we know from Wikileaks about our staff in all the different Departments, I’d highly recommend not to allow the
scanning of private flights.

Karl: I appreciate your comments.  I am familiar with FAA regs, as I am an instrument-rated private pilot and aircraft owner.  I fly in the vicinity of Class C airspace, which means I must have my transponder on and reporting altitude for most of my flights.  So you are correct, if I’m not on a flight plan I am not identified by either pilot or aircraft registration; ATC knows only that there is an aircraft reporting its position, direction and speed of travel, and altitude, which is all that is required for traffic separation service for those aircraft either on flight following or instrument flight plans.  For VFR flight, only if I intend to cross an international border in either direction am I required to provide a passenger manifest and precise itinterary.  That is onerous in its excution (must be done on line, and often one is departing from a location without internet service) but at least understandable.  Anyone crossing an international border is subject to scrutiny.

EZ Pass is optional.  Administered in NY State by the Thruway Authority, not DOT, by the way.  Private auto trips are not, nor should they be tracked.  Neither should private aircraft trips.

Governor Scott’s pledge to sell of the state planes has absolutly no impact on the state of Florida’s budget. He made it sound like he was saving the State when he pitched this to his partisan Tea Party fans.The total dollar amount the planes are bringing at auction is around $3.5 million, however, $2.4 is still owed on the jet (not sure about the King Air). Net to the state (assumung the King Air is paid for) is less than $1million. In a state that has an annual operating budget of $70 billion that amounts to 0.0000142 % of the states budget…...BIG DEAL!!


Sorry. I did not realize you were not from the USA, so I would have no expectation of you knowing the protocol of addressing our current and former Presidents.

For the people in the USA who disagree with much of President Obama’s policies, or naively believe he is not eligible for the office, it is typical to use Mr. Obama as a demonstration of disrespect.

I disagree with many of President Obama’s decisions, but I as a liberal would be chastised for disrespecting a conservative President. So I expect nothing less from conservative and right-wing libertarian citizens in respect to our supposedly liberal President.

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