DOT dismantles aircraft operators’ basic privacy rights

May 31, 2011

General aviation aircraft operators will no longer be able to block their N number and associated flight information when flying IFR unless they can prove a “valid security concern,” Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced May 27.

“This initiative is wholly inappropriate. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's decision dismantles the fundamental privacy rights of aircraft operators—a level of privacy afforded to users of every other form of transportation,” AOPA President Craig Fuller said. “No other mode of travel can be tracked in real time by third parties and the public. Ironically, the DOT blocks information about the movements of its own aircraft—a right it is now denying wholesale to citizens.”

AOPA, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers, to name a few, have opposed limiting participation in the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program. The groups explained that releasing information to the public such as the aircraft’s altitude, airspeed, destination, and estimated time of arrival invades privacy, poses a security risk to those on board, and threatens the competitiveness of U.S. companies.

In his announcement, LaHood said, “Both general aviation and commercial aircraft use the public airspace and air traffic control facilities, and the public has a right to information about their activities.” The information will be available online through Aircraft Situation Display to Industry and National Airspace System Status Information.

Fuller maintains that the move inappropriately singles out GA.

“Imagine what might happen if the movements of every car and truck in the United States could be viewed in real time by anyone with an interest,” Fuller said. “Clearly this would be a violation of the basic privacy rights afforded to all Americans, and yet anyone who flies an aircraft is being singled out for exactly this treatment.”

GA aircraft often are used much like automobiles to get from Point A to Point B more efficiently than on the ground or by commercial airlines. Additionally, pilots often volunteer to transport those in need to medical facilities for treatment. Whether for personal, business, or humanitarian efforts, aircraft operators in the past have been able to block their aircraft’s information from public view when flying on an IFR flight plan. That information was still available to air traffic controllers and the FAA.

“I look forward to meeting the DOT official who can explain how the federal government can be fully committed to protecting individual records of medical care yet find it perfectly acceptable to allow anyone to track aircraft flown by private citizens to locations to receive medical treatment,” Fuller said.

“By requiring that aircraft operators certify that they have a ‘valid’ security concern for keeping their information private, the DOT has created an inequitable and unreasonable standard—and set itself up to be judge and jury in determining who has the right to privacy and who does not.”

AOPA, EAA, and NBAA are supporting a provision in the House FAA reauthorization bill that would preserve the BARR program.

The provision states that “upon the request of a private owner of operator of an aircraft, the Federal Government should not disseminate to the public information relation to noncommercial flights carried out by the owner or operator, as the information should be private and confidential.” It also directs the FAA to block N numbers if requested by a private aircraft owner or operator and does not require any justification for the request.

The Senate version of the bill does not include the provision; the two reauthorization bills are currently in conference committee where the differences are being worked out. If the language were to be passed in a long-term FAA funding bill, the protection afforded to the BARR program would trump the policy change announced by LaHood. The change in policy is scheduled to go into effect 60 days after the final notice is published in the Federal Register. However, the final rule has yet to be published and no release date has been set.