Flight-tracking software and websites can be extremely useful to operators and aviation businesses. When used to help pilots better understand how ATC works, the technology also can be a valuable educational tool. But they also can be misused: Allowing anyone with an Internet connection to have near real-time access to a certain aircraft, pilot, or passenger’s travel plans raises legitimate privacy and security issues. If the Department of Transportation (DOT) has its way, however, many pilots and passengers will lose the ability to block their aircraft’s movements from public view. It’s something the EAA is opposing, in partnership with the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).
Websites like FlightAware.com, which present aircraft flight plan information via the FAA-supplied aircraft situation display to industry (ASDI) data, have grown very popular since the mid-1990s when ASDI data first became publicly available. The ASDI data stream includes call sign, altitude, groundspeed, departure point, and destination information for all IFR aircraft as well as those VFR flights using ATC radar services. It essentially duplicates and makes available to the public the same basic information present on a controller’s radar screen, with a slight time delay.
However, ASDI’s widespread availability also raised privacy concerns among operators who—for various personal and commercial reasons—don’t want their aircraft’s location publicly available.
Enter the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program, created jointly by the FAA and NBAA and formally blessed by Congress in 2000. The free program, administered by NBAA, allows any operator to block their aircraft’s movements from the ASDI stream available to the public upon written request and without government review. (Full disclosure: This author uses the BARR program to block his airplane’s N-number from the public.)
Recently, however, the DOT had a change of heart and a rulemaking at the FAA formalized its new policy: Only those operators demonstrating to the FAA’s satisfaction at least once a year that they have a “valid security concern” may continue to block their ASDI data.
According to the FAA’s rulemaking, a valid security concern is a “verifiable threat to person, property or company.” A “generalized concern about safety” or security is not enough to clear this high hurdle under the new policy.
Despite widespread industry opposition to the BARR program’s elimination, it likely will occur August 2, 2011, as planned. Concerns expressed by organizations and individuals opposing the new policy include its inconsistency with government’s long-established obligation to protect privacy, not compromise it; the lack of any affirmative public policy rationale for the proposal; and the policy’s failure to acknowledge the vital interest operators may have, beyond traditional notions of privacy, in blocking public access to information about their flights. Additionally, the new policy places the federal government in the position of deciding whether an operator’s privacy concerns are valid and would create administrative burdens to both operators/owners and the FAA without offering any discernible benefit.
Both the NBAA and AOPA went to court in an attempt to suspend the new policy from taking effect, and EAA filed a “friend of the court” brief in that case. As expected, a U.S. Court of Appeals July 21 denied the associations’ request on procedural grounds, allowing the case to move forward and be decided on its merits. However, additional court action won’t occur until after the new policy’s August 2 effective date. All three organizations express confidence the court will strike down the DOT’s unprecedented changes to the BARR program.
In Congress, the version of FAA reauthorization legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in April includes a provision preventing DOT/FAA from eliminating the BARR program. That measure presently is the subject of a joint conference with the U.S. Senate, which in February passed its own version of an FAA reauthorization bill without a similar provision. However, there is no schedule or deadline by which Congress must act to reconcile the two bills’ differences.
Earlier in July, EAA President and CEO Rod Hightower urged association members to contact their federal elected officials to express opposition to the DOT/FAA policy change and support of the House-passed provision overturning it, noting, “A bipartisan coalition of 59 legislators—26 Senators and 33 Members of the House—have called upon the DOT Secretary to shelve his agency’s plans to eliminate the BARR. We urge Congress to continue working to pass a final FAA reauthorization bill, which would bring resolution to this matter.”