FltPlan Flight Privacy Program Exposes Tangled FAA Policy

 - August 31, 2011, 3:30 AM

In the days and weeks leading up to the August 2 changes that eliminated the Block Aircraft Registration Request (Barr) program, which for a decade had allowed Part 91 operators to suppress their flight information at online flight tracking websites, a number of business aircraft pilots were eager to find an alternative. And they quickly found a free-market solution.

Since about mid-July, FltPlan.com–a company that claims to process more than two million FAA flight plans a year from pilots–started offering its customers a “call sign” program. In an email marketing campaign to existing clients, the company billed it thus: “For owners/operators who want to protect their privacy, FltPlan.com can issue a call sign that will prevent your tail number from appearing on flight tracking programs.” Following this was a contact name and phone number where more information could be obtained.

It didn’t take long before word of FltPlan’s program spread throughout the business aviation pilot community. After all, some 7,000 operators were registered under Barr, and while they all want their flight history not to be made available publicly, only a fraction of them could meet the more stringent requirements under the FAA’s new Certified Security Concern (CSC) list. This FAA list technically still allows aircraft tail number blocking, but only if operators can show a “verifiable threat to person, property or company, including the threat of death, kidnapping or serious bodily harm against an individual, a recent history of violent terrorist activity in the geographic area in which the transportation is provided, or a threat against a company.” Most aircraft operators cannot meet that threshold.

But FltPlan’s call-sign program–which costs $250 per year per aircraft–is much more open, meaning those Part 91 operators ineligible for the CSC list could still block their flights at the online flight tracker sites. The only restriction is that the call-sign program is for “established,” not new, FltPlan customers. Asked to define “established,” the company told AIN, “A pilot who files flight plans with us on a regular basis.” So new customers could be counted as “established” after filing just a few FAA flight plans with FltPlan.

FAA Advisory Circular AC120-26J, which outlines the criteria and procedures for obtaining a call sign, specifically mentions Part 91 operators as ineligible to have their own call sign. However, there is a provision for granting “servicing agencies” a call sign, and this is exactly how FltPlan received the call sign Dotcom (FAA/ICAO three-letter designator DCM) several years ago.

“The FAA has determined that as a servicing agency filing more than two million flight plans per year, many of which are international, FltPlan.com is authorized to have a call sign,” a company spokeswoman told AIN. “This is not a new practice, as many service providers assign call signs to their users’ flights.” AIN found that the major business aviation flight service providers–including Jeppesen Data Plan, Universal Aviation and Baseops–do have call signs under this same provision, but could not verify whether they issue call signs to customer flights.

Meanwhile, the FAA would not answer questions regarding the legality of a servicing agency outright selling the use of its call sign to Part 91 operators as a replacement for the now-defunct Barr program. However, AIN understands that the agency is looking into the matter.

FAA-level Blocking
FltPlan wouldn’t disclose how many business aircraft operators have signed up to use its Dotcom call sign, instead of their own individual tail numbers, to protect their privacy. But it was clear by the first week of August that FltPlan’s call sign program wasn’t working as planned. As late as midday August 11, those using FltPlan’s Dotcom call signs could still be tracked on FlightAware and other online flight trackers. Worse, FlightAware found a way to show these operators’ N-numbers alongside their Dotcom flight numbers, making some FltPlan call-sign customers quite irate.

But by the evening of August 11, Dotcom flights mysteriously ceased showing up on all of the online flight-tracking providers. Some industry observers initially speculated that there was a potential glitch with the FAA’s Aircraft Situation Display to Industry (ASDI) feed, the aircraft radar data that flight tracking sites use. However, FltPlan quickly put that theory to rest. “Servicing agencies with call signs have the option to be blocked at the FAA level or not at all,” FltPlan told AIN. “Due to feedback from our users, we have chosen to have it blocked at the FAA level.”

This means that, one week after eliminating Barr, the FAA allowed FltPlan to suppress its Dotcom call-sign flight information from the ASDI feed without any requirements to disclose a “verifiable threat,” which individual Part 91 operators now must submit while applying for the same courtesy.

More significantly, with this move the FAA might have shot itself in the foot when it comes to defending the dismantling of Barr in court this fall. It will now be difficult for the FAA, the defendant in the Barr lawsuit, to explain to a judge why call-sign operators can still block their flight information in the same manner that Part 91 operators formerly could under Barr. Lawyers working for the plaintiffs in the suit–namely, NBAA, AOPA and EAA–would not comment about how this recent action could affect their court defense, saying that they do not wish to publicly reveal their legal tactics before the case is heard by a judge.

After AIN revealed the FAA’s contradictory policy to allow call-sign operators to opt out of the ASDI feed without reason while imposing strict requirements for Part 91 operators to do so, all of the parties involved declined to discuss the matter further. FltPlan said it had not intended information about the call-sign program to be released publicly. Meanwhile, the FAA cited the pending Barr litigation as preventing it from answering a list of questions submitted to the agency by AIN.

Read a blog about the FAA’s contradictory stands on N-number blocking.