Should aircraft tracking be used for sales leads?

 - January 30, 2007, 5:21 AM

You may have gone to the effort to put your home telephone number on the national telemarketers’ “Do Not Call” list, but still find yourself vulnerable when you least expect it. Pilots recently have complained on the NBAA Air Mail Internet forum about some unique nuisance calls. One pilot said that while stopping for fuel at an en route FBO, he was summoned to the telephone to answer a call for “the crew” of his aircraft type and tail number. Upon answering the call, he found it was a counter agent calling from an FBO–not at the destination airport, but rather one close by–trying to lure him in with special offers. The caller had used the Aircraft Situation Display to Industry (ASDI) program at his FBO to track the jet and learn its destination.

That might have seemed like a clever marketing idea at the time, but it backfired, angering the pilot, who reported he was trying to complete a quick turn when the unwelcome call slowed him down. Since the caller identified the tail number, the pilot assumed it was his own office calling with an important message.

ASDI data, generated from computerized ATC flow data, became available to the general public on a need-to-know basis in 1995 under the freedom of information act. Since September 1998, NBAA has operated its Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program, under which a tail number can be blocked from the system to all subscribers except those holding a specific password. However, even when the aircraft tail number is blocked, its type and airports of origin and destination are still listed on the ASDI screen. So the telemarketing FBO employee could simply  ask to speak to the crew of the specific type of aircraft.

There is a code of conduct that all ASDI providers must sign with the FAA or lose their access to ASDI source material. According to an NBAA spokesman, whether using ASDI data for telemarketing is consistent with the terms of the code of conduct is a “gray area.”

In the five years it has been available, the ASDI system has seen few abusers, said the NBAA spokesman. Its value to charter brokers has been immeasurable, according to one of the providers who asked not to be identified. He explained that, using ASDI, if a broker has a customer who calls for a flight from A to B, the broker can see which charter aircraft are located near A, and call to see if they have the date and time open for the flight. “Before ASDI,” said the provider, “the broker could call only as many of its ‘usual suspect’ charter operator partners as practical and ask them–hit or miss–if they had an airplane in the area. Now, he can call only those he knows have an airplane at that airport.” Besides profiting the brokers, it makes the whole charter industry that much more efficient, with fewer deadhead legs flown.

ASDI has also been a big help to smaller flight departments, allowing them to keep track of their aircraft in real time without forcing the pilots to call in several times during the day with progress reports. And for busy FBOs (telemarketing aside), ASDI has been a godsend, giving line supervisors and counter agents a detailed heads-up on the ETA of incoming traffic–expected or not.

The perhaps overambitious telemarketer mentioned above was using ASDI as an extension of one of the oldest weapons in the FBO arsenal. It used to be that FBO managers would use binoculars to spot the tail numbers of aircraft on competitors’ ramps across the field, then call the aircraft’s dispatch authority (chief pilot or department manager) later on and offer incentives to try to lure him to their facility. With ASDI, not only can the FBO manager keep his binoculars on the shelf, but he can reach out to operators of aircraft that visit nearby airports as well. Most would likely agree, however, that interrupting the crew during a quick turn at an en route FBO is a step too far.

One element of the ASDI program that came into play after 9/11 mandates that only approved, need-to-know customers (bona fide charter dispatchers, FBOs and so forth–so-called Class I subscribers) receive flight data in real time. Class II subscribers receive the data with a five-minute delay built into the program.

Some aircraft operators are still uneasy about ASDI and the breach of privacy it enables. Though service providers must sign an enforceable FAA code of conduct, the providers’ customers could use the data in creative ways without raising red flags. For example, if a company wanted to know the whereabouts of a competitor’s jet over the preceding several months, it could use historical ASDI data to help get the answers. One ASDI provider said he had a backlog of some 25 million flights in his database. Operators participating in the BARR program, however, have their registration numbers protected from such historical records. But even with BARR, there are enough circumstances under which aircraft type and airport of origin are enough to identify the operator.