FlightAware CEO among those who opposes Barr changes

 - April 28, 2011, 7:10 AM

At press time, the FAA had received nearly 700 comments on its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to dramatically curtail the Block Aircraft Registration Request (Barr) program. The comment period officially ended on April 4, but comments continue to be accepted on the public docket.

Barr allows general aviation aircraft owners to opt out of having their flight information publicly available at real-time, online flight-tracking providers such as FlightAware. As proposed, the FAA’s changes to this program, which was established by Congress in 2000, would effectively limit the program’s privacy protection to only those aircraft owners with a known and specific security threat. Broad security concerns–including corporate espionage, threats that do not yet meet the standards required to issue restraining orders or well known people who just don’t want to be hounded by the public while traveling privately–would not be covered under this proposal.

Proposed Change Unpopular

Of the 685 comments submitted at press time, all but a handful opposed the changes. Nearly 2,000 NBAA members have also signed a petition in opposition to the Barr changes (NBAA is still allowing people to sign the petition, even though it submitted it to the FAA on April 4.)

The general aviation alphabet groups have been vocally opposed to the Barr changes, and their public comments merely echo their well documented concerns about “safety, security, privacy and confidentiality that would emerge if the proposed changes entered into effect,” to quote NBAA. Many other comments in the docket support, if not outright repeat, the same talking points.

But the submitted comments from FlightAware CEO Daniel Baker are perhaps the most interesting, and surprising, of any in the public docket. In fact, one of the aviation alphabet group spokesman told AIN that Baker’s comments are perhaps “the most eloquent of those submitted.”

Baker states, “Although the proposed change would stand to financially benefit FlightAware, we oppose the change on the basis that it is misguided, overly broad and simplified, and would negatively impact the transportation sector as well as the U.S. economy at large.

“Indeed the current Barr program is imperfect, but the proposed change is unnecessary; it neither solves any problems nor suggests it is doing so. Additionally, it creates new problems, as well as an unnecessary administrative burden for the FAA.”

While the proposed change “unnecessarily reduces privacy in the public sector,” Baker noted that it does not affect the ability to block government aircraft from the live ATC feeds, “failing to increase any transparency in the U.S. federal government, despite a [January 2009] mandate from President Obama” to do just that.

Additionally, he said, if an operator’s discretion to restrict real-time access to its flights is eliminated, then “it could be argued that Apis or Secure Flight data should be similarly released so that all passenger manifests for private and airline flights to/from/within the U.S. should be released for public scrutiny. Such a change would have identical implications to the proposed [Barr] change and [would be] similarly opposed by an even larger number of U.S. citizens.”

The proposed changes to Barr would also be ineffective, according to Baker, because operators who wish to suppress their flight information could just reregister their aircraft in a foreign country, since these aircraft are not included in the live ATC data feeds. Alternatively, operators could enter “into other agreements that result in flight/tail number ambiguity,” though he didn’t provide specific details of how this could be accomplished. Either way, Baker noted, “Ultimately, the data would still be unavailable to the public and would serve to make it more difficult for companies that support flight operations.”

Over the next few months, the FAA will be reviewing the comments from Baker, associations and hundreds of individuals. After it absorbs the public feedback, the agency could draft a final rule, possibly by year-end.

John and Martha King spoke to AIN about their opposition to changes to the Block Aircraft Registration Request program. Listen to the interview at www.ainonline.com/audio.