Lawmakers decry Barr restrictions

 - July 31, 2011, 4:40 AM

Lawmakers from both houses of Congress have joined the battle over the Department of Transportation’s decision to dismantle the Block Aircraft Registration Request (Barr) program, with 26 senators and 33 representatives telling DOT Secretary Ray LaHood in separate letters that it is “a troubling reversal of a decade-old policy” established to uphold the privacy rights of Americans.

The senators noted that in light of advances of for-profit flight tracking services, Congress included a provision in the 2000 FAA reauthorization bill enabling the Barr program. For reasons of individual security, privacy and business competitiveness, the program provides owners of general aviation aircraft the ability to prevent public dissemination of their aircraft movements.

In a June 29 letter, the senators took issue with the DOT’s claim that it needs to severely curtail Barr to promote greater transparency in government. “While all Americans support an open and transparent government process,” the lawmakers told LaHood, “the Barr program is about the preservation of personal citizens’ right to privacy and has nothing to do with shedding light on our federal government.”

The senators also expressed concern that this move by the DOT “sets a dangerous precedent” for the ability of the government to disseminate the travel information of any citizen, regardless of the mode of transportation.

Less than two weeks later, the members of the House sent a similar letter to LaHood, in which they cited “serious concerns” regarding the FAA’s proposal to allow public access to general aviation aircraft movements.

“First and foremost, all Americans have a right to privacy, and the federal government should not broadcast the movements of individuals using private aircraft against their will,” the House members wrote on July 11. “Second, American companies use the Barr program to operate free from surveillance or to explore new business opportunities without competitive interference. Lastly, there are security concerns for business leaders and individuals that use private aircraft and the Barr program prevents unknown parties and potential threats from tracking their movements.”

Both legislative bodies pointed out that this battle is not just the aviation community versus the FAA and DOT. They said that “a whole range of groups” have expressed concerns about the FAA’s proposal, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable and, most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union.

And with the issue of Barr currently being debated by the conferees on the FAA reauthorization bill, they said it is premature to unilaterally implement a regulation on a legislative issue currently before Congress.

House legislation for preserving the Barr program was passed in March as part of a House FAA reauthorization bill. That bill is now being considered, along with its Senate counterpart, by a House/Senate conference committee that is working to reconcile differences between the two bills into a single FAA reauthorization package to be voted on by Congress.

In the meantime, NBAA and AOPA filed a lawsuit against the FAA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on July 14 seeking an emergency motion for a stay of the August 2 start date for Barr restrictions to go into effect. Since then, the Experimental Aircraft Association has allied with NBAA and AOPA as a “friend of the court.”