NBAA weighs in on proposed Barr limitations

 - March 1, 2011, 8:25 AM

With the Department of Transportation considering establishing limitations on the Block Aircraft Registration Request (Barr), NBAA has surveyed members and forwarded information to the agency.

Early last month, NBAA sent a letter to members alerting them about a serious challenge to the availability of the Barr program because the DOT is looking at instituting security-related eligibility requirements. This could severely limit eligibility for the tail-number blocking service.

Barr, which is administered by NBAA on behalf of the FAA, allows aircraft operators with privacy and industrial security concerns to prevent their aircraft from being visible on online flight tracking services.

NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen first revealed at an association conference last month that the DOT "is considering limiting Barr to only those with bona fide security concerns." Since then, NBAA sent the letter to members warning of "onerous limitations to Barr through implementation of a security-related eligibility requirement, both for current participants and for entities that may seek to participate in the future."

NBAA then conducted an online Barr survey to ascertain if members' passengers would be eligible for this "security-related eligibility requirement," which is based on an existing U.S. Treasury regulation. The DOT has informed NBAA that, before making any decision to limit eligibility for the Barr program, it will issue a notice inviting interested people to submit comments on such limitations.

Recent Program Challenges

The Barr program was implemented in 2000 with the support of NBAA and the FAA. Because there are legitimate reasons why companiesπ flights should not be displayed to any online flight-tracking provider, NBAA has aggressively defended Barr and fought off challenges.

The most recent assault was launched in 2008 following the appearance of the CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler before Congress. It came out that all three flew to Washington in separate corporate jets from Detroit to Washington.

The resulting negative publicity, coupled with similar criticism involving the use of business jets by officials from investment banks and others seeking federal money under the much-maligned Troubled Assets Relief Program, prompted ProPublica to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. ProPublica, which describes itself as an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, soon learned that GM tried to prevent the public from tracking its planes through Barr.

According to the letter, NBAA "forcefully defended the confidentiality of members' blocked aircraft tail numbers by mounting a legal challenge" to the FOIA request for all aircraft tail numbers blocked through the Barr program. NBAA and its legal counsel pursued the matter in the federal district court in Washington, D.C.

But in February 2010, the court ruled that the FAA was required to release the aircraft tail numbers listed in the Barr program on the date of ProPublicaπs FOIA request. The decision does not permit the disclosure of real-time flight data, historical or operator names. NBAA said its legal counsel advised against any further appeals.

NBAA said at the time that it was unaware of what, if anything, the investigative-journalism organization was going to do with the information obtained through its FOIA request.

In April 2010, ProPublica published a story that noted aircraft owners didn't have to meet any test to keep their flights secret. "They merely submit a request to the [NBAA], a trade group that lobbied to set up the program on the grounds that secrecy is justified to protect business deals and the security of executives," they wrote.

"But in at least some cases, the program has also served as a refuge for airplane owners whoπve faced bad publicity, according to a review by ProPublica of 1,100 blocked airplanes in the program," ProPublica wrote. "The list was obtained after a 15-month public records battle in which the business aviation group sued the FAA to keep it confidential."

ProPublica disclosed that the Barr list it received from the FAA included aircraft registered to Fortune 500 companies such as 3M and Tyson Foods, private real estate developers, government agencies and evangelical churches. It further pointed out that the list included 62 Gulfstream IVs and Vs, which cost tens of millions of dollars each, as well as 36 Learjets and two Boeing 737s.

According to ProPublica, registered owners included college booster clubs and athletic programs, who blocked flights to hide coaching searches and recruiting trips; the CEO of Hooters (the company said the executive used the airplane to conduct surprise checks on restaurants); and owners of newspapers that have fought for access to public records.

In a recent update, NBAA said it is continuing to process Barr program requests.

Operators have two options to determine how they wish block their aircraft:

ASDI-level blocking. Using this level, an operatorπs Aircraft Situation Display to Industry (ASDI) data is now available to subscribers through several vendors. Providers are bound by letter of agreement not to publish information for aircraft that are on the Barr list. This gives operators the ability to track their own aircraft.

FAA-level blocking. Using this level, an operatorπs ASDI data is not broadcast from the FAA to the ASDI vendors at all. Aircraft operators considering this should first check with their flight-tracking vendor to discuss the impact that this option will have on their ability to monitor flights.