Journalism in the Public Interest

FAA Moves to Limit Blockout System Hiding Private Jet Flights

Citing a court ruling involving a ProPublica public records request, the Federal Aviation Administration says private jet owners may not block their whereabouts from real-time flight tracking without a valid security concern.  The National Business Aviation Association objects to the proposed FAA rule change.


(Stock photo from Flickr: Corporate Flight Management)

The Federal Aviation Administration is proposing rules that would prevent private plane owners from keeping their flight records secret unless they can provide a valid security concern.

The FAA said the practice of blocking flights from real-time tracking data had created a transparency issue and cited a federal court ruling involving a Freedom of Information Act request that had been filed by ProPublica.

In recent months, blocked flights have prevented the public from learning details about a plane suspected of being used for gold smuggling, a prominent minister accused of sexual abuse involving private jet trips and the travels of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during a major snowstorm.

If adopted, the FAA plan would limit a program in which plane owners can keep their flight information secret by sending a request to an industry group, known as the National Business Aviation Association. Under the current system, the group provides the FAA a list of requests, and government workers block the flights no questions asked.

The FAA created the system based on concerns that the proliferation of websites posting real-time flight-tracking presented a security threat to executives and could jeopardize business deals.

After ProPublica filed its public records request in December 2008, the FAA agreed to release the tail numbers of planes on its block list. The business aviation association sued the FAA to prevent the agency from doing so but lost.

When the list finally was released last spring, 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 questioned about personal trips on state planes and Fortune 500 companies that had received government bailouts.

The business aviation association said that it would oppose the FAA's proposal, issued Friday, because it represented "an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of aircraft owners and operators, a threat to the competitiveness of U.S. companies and a potential security risk to persons on board."

The group's president, Ed Bolen, said the government would be providing the means to "electronically stalk" people.

"When the sanctity of citizens' private conduct is threatened by the use of information technology, government's job is to protect the individual, not facilitate the intrusion," Bolen said in a statement. He added that the public doesn't have access to toll records of where people are driving.

Use of the national airspace has generally been considered public information because planes rely on a taxpayer-funded system of air traffic controllers, radars, runways and towers. To oversee aircraft safety and registration, the FAA collects information about the plane, where it's going and when it takes off and lands.

Under the new rules, flights could be blocked only if plane owners could prove to the FAA that there has been a threat of death, kidnapping or serious bodily harm or a recent history of terrorist activity in the area where the plane travels.

Businesses frequently use flight-tracking records to know when their employees land, arrange fuel and taxis and schedule meetings. Journalists also use the records for news stories. But blocking flights makes public scrutiny difficult, as exhibited by several recent news events involving planes:

  • A private jet used by Texas businessmen was seized in the Congo last month after officials there said it was used to smuggle gold.
  • New York City Mayor Bloomberg has taken heat over his whereabouts during a December blizzard. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that one of the planes he uses was in Bermuda at the time.
  • Last fall, four young men sued the prominent Bishop Eddie Long of sexually abusing them during trips, in which they flew on his private jet.

In all three cases, the flights were blocked on websites that post the government data feed. Reporters can still obtain the information through a longer, formal request process.

The FAA proposal is open for public comment until April 4 through the website,

Anyone want to bet that this crew of Congresspigs cuts the FAA’s funding for the implementation of the new rules? If its good enough for the EPA, it should be good enough for the FAA!

One of the TV preachers, one of the loudest, uses his missionary jet to ship diamonds from Africa to US. 

Could this be necessary to save the souls of Africans or the Swiss bank accounts of missionary preachers.

James B Storer

March 7, 2011, 7:41 p.m.

Quoting a paragraph from the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) President and CEO Ed Bolen statement today:  “As an additional concern, the proposal creates an unnecessary competitive vulnerability for American businesses, which are trying to operate in a highly competitive world – a world in which the revelation of a company’s aircraft movements can be tantamount to the forfeiture of that company’s competitive edge.”
  All of us have heard “...tantamount to the forfeiture of that company’s competitive edge” (or words to that effect), too many times to count.  “Competitive edge” is the rationale for maintaining near slave labor in the farm fields, against proposals to raise the minimum wage, and on and on.  The words are devoid of logical thinking.  These sorts of companies are in danger of losing their competitive edge because of losing access to illegal or unethical business practices, profiting from government favoritism, or simply being too poorly managed to survive if required to compete on an even and humane business climate.  Skartishu, Granby, MO

Ellen T Wright

March 7, 2011, 8:31 p.m.

If these people have nothing to hide, then why are they hiding?

It really does beg the question. Just because you can afford the private jet does not mean that you are afforded the privilege of being literally “above the law”. You don’t leave the world of law and ethics behind when the wheels leave the ground. That is not your private playpen up there. The rules still apply, Daddy Warbucks.

And, as far as knowing where you are on the streets is concerned-has anybody looked up and seen all the cameras looking down at us lately? Excuse me, people-privacy is a thing of the past unless you are quite literally living in a cave completely off the grid. Good luck with that one.

Might drive sales of voice encryption technology.  Folks like [insert wealthy “conservatives” here] can’t sneak into places like Ohio and Wisconsin in order to tell their governors precisely what (not “how”, but “what”) they will serve the citizens of those states, they’ll be forced to find another method of communicating their orders that is at least as secure as a face-to-face in a private room at the local business club.

Javier Caceres

March 8, 2011, 11:12 a.m.

I propose something in between: Hide the ” live ” flight plans for those plane owners that requested the feature at a cost BUT make available on line all of those hidden flight plans a certain number of hours after the flight was completed.

James B Storer

March 8, 2011, 12:29 p.m.

Javier Caceres.  I agree with your suggestion that the flight secrecy tag removal must occur sooner rather than never.  That beats the cloak-and-dagger boy’s insistence that once a secret, always a secret.  I suggest, however, that we award the secrecy cloak only after approval by a powerful independent review committee (not in existence at present), which many of us citizens believe is a major policy requirement applicable to all government “secrecy” and secrecy expiration policies.  This, I suppose, would require that companies tender these flight secrecy requests considerably ahead of the flights.
  There was a time when the prevailing propaganda held that the government and the nation benefited by a great love affair involving private companies in achieving worthy goals.  I bit on this for a time.  Now, however, my older, much wiser, and deeper insight holds that is pure nonsense, loaded with potentially unethical, immoral, and dangerous projects.  We should not allow such things as “flight secrecy” to commercial entities for flights engaged in any manner whatsoever related to business.  In fact, I am convinced that creeping corporatism and steadily advances in the power awarded to Corporate Personhood is possibly the greatest danger facing our democracy.  I am in sympathy with the emotional tenor of the comment yesterday submitted by Ellen T Wright: – briefly, if you have nothing to hide, why do you hide?  —-thanx, Skartishu, Granby MO

General aviation is family trips, business trips, air taxi, medical/emergency: basically any flight that is neither military nor scheduled airlines.  So. Everyone would be ok with having the time, origin, route and destination of all private auto trips made public, right?  No?  Then why is it ok for private airplane trips?  Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither and will lose both.

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