GA groups ask Congress to support flight-tracking privacy

May 16, 2011

AOPA, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) sent a letter to Congressional leaders May 13 requesting support for a provision in the House FAA reauthorization bill that would preserve the congressionally enabled Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program.  The House and Senate are working out the differences in a long-term FAA bill, and the Senate FAA bill does not include the provision preserving the BARR program.

The BARR program gives aircraft owners and operators the ability to “opt out” of having their aircraft’s movements electronically broadcast to nongovernment entities by commercial flight-tracking services.  In the letter, the associations pointed out that under the BARR program, the FAA, Department of Homeland Security, and law enforcement agencies always retain their ability to track general aviation aircraft movements, but GA operators are provided the ability to “opt out” of having their real-time private movements disseminated beyond the government to unknown third parties throughout the world.

Significantly limiting the BARR represents 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 people on board, the associations stated.  “Americans have a reasonable and appropriate expectation of privacy in their personal movements regardless of the mode of transportation involved. It would set a dangerous precedent to establish a policy that movements in any type of vehicle (whether car, train or airplane) can be disseminated by the federal government to unknown third parties against a citizen’s will.”

In March, the FAA solicited comments on its proposal to restrict BARR use to operators who can submit written certification of a “valid security concern”—defined as “a verifiable threat to person, property or company, including a threat of death, kidnapping or serious bodily harm against an individual, a recent history of violent terrorist activity in the geographic area in which the transportation is provided, or a threat against a company.”

AOPA urged the FAA to reconsider plans to curtail pilots’ use of the program.  “National security and personal privacy will suffer if the FAA proceeds with its plan to limit access to the BARR program,” said AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Melissa Rudinger in formal comments filed April 1. She described the FAA’s proposed revisions of BARR as “a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.”

“AOPA has determined that the proposed changes are dangerous, invasive, and non-competitive and the implications are far reaching,” she wrote.

On May 10, Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), co-chairs of the Senate General Aviation Caucus, along with Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), sent a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller and Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison requesting support for the BARR program and that the provision be included in any final FAA reauthorization bill.

“As general aviation supporters and as such staunch proponents of privacy rights, we are deeply concerned by the implications of the FAA’s proposed modifications.  U.S. citizens have a fundamental right to privacy, and we do not believe Americans are entitled to any less privacy because they are traveling on a general aviation aircraft,” said the senators.

In addition, the senators pointed out that the House considered its FAA bill after the FAA indicated its intention to eliminate the BARR program; therefore the House had the opportunity to include the provision preserving the program in its current form.  The Senate passed its FAA bill before the FAA made its announcement.
“AOPA appreciates the Senate GA Caucus co-chairs, Senator Begich and Senator Johanns, as well as Senator Nelson and Senator Warner for expressing their support for the BARR language in the House FAA bill and we hope the Senate will support this important provision,” said Lorraine Howerton, Vice President of Legislative Affairs.