No doubt that the general and business aviation associations were high-fiving each other last Friday when President Obama signed an appropriations bill containing language that reinstates the Block Aircraft Registration Request (Barr) program through the end of Fiscal Year 2012 (Sept. 30, 2012). The Department of Transportation (DOT), the FAA’s parent agency, ended the tail-number blocking program in early August, citing the need for more transparency in government.
The reason was a fairly weak cover for what appears to be a political initiative pushed by DOT Secretary Ray La Hood, possibly even at the behest of his boss, President Obama. It didn’t matter what the aircraft owners and operators thought about the proposed changes to Barr; the more than 850 negative comments they submitted to the agency didn’t result in any changes to the original proposal. Basically, the DOT did what it wanted to do, damn everyone else.
But when the DOT actually dismantled Barr, NBAA and AOPA sued the FAA over the action. For some as-yet-unknown reason the case was expedited in the court system, and initial hearings were set for December 2–that’s less than four months after the lawsuit was filed, which is warp speed in the courts.
And last Friday, Congress sent a clear message to the FAA/DOT to reinstate Barr, but the agencies have yet to do anything. My inquiries this week to the FAA about Barr reinstatement were referred to the DOT, a not-so-subtle reminder of which agency has been driving the Barr issue.
When I contacted the DOT yesterday, it took an agency spokesman more than two hours to tell me, “We’re aware of the legislation and are reviewing it.” I should hope so, since President Obama signed the bill four days earlier. The DOT has yet to answer AIN’s specific questions about how and when the agency will restore the Barr program.
But there’s not much to review when it comes to the bill amendment relating to Barr: “None of the funds made available…may be used to implement or to continue to implement any limitation on the ability of any owner or operator of a private aircraft to obtain, upon a request to the Administrator of the [FAA], a blocking of that owner’s or operator’s aircraft registration number from any display of the [FAA’s] Aircraft Situational Display to Industry data.” In short, Congress wants the FAA/DOT to put Barr back to the way it used to be.
It took the FAA/DOT only about five working days after the final rule was issued on August 2 to wind down Barr, so it really shouldn’t take much more time to restore the program. Today marks working day number three after the legislation was signed, but who’s counting?
The real question is how the DOT is reviewing the legislation. Is it looking at it and trying to figure out a plan for how and when it can stand up Barr again, or is it looking for some kind of loophole so it can continue to deny aircraft operators from blocking their tail numbers from the online flight trackers?
If it’s the former, then why does the DOT appear to be dragging its feet? What’s taking so long for the agency to review about 100 words and publicly announce a plan to comply with Congress’s intent?
What I fear is that it’s the latter: the agency is trying to wiggle its way out of this. The DOT has proved that it will do what it wants to do when it comes to Barr, so why should it change course now?
Thankfully, the Barr lawsuit court hearing is still on for next Friday. This puts NBAA and AOPA in a more powerful position than they would have been otherwise. Their lawyers will surely be whipping out the bill’s Barr amendment as Exhibit A to the judge, and it will instantly be game over for the DOT. A judge could very well force the DOT to reinstate Barr within a specific time period. And then if it fails to do so, the agency could find itself in contempt of court. Let’s hope it doesn’t have to go there and that the DOT will do the right thing and just comply with the law.
While the business aviation community won this latest battle over Barr, the war really won’t be over until the DOT/FAA says how and when they will restore Barr and then actually follows through on that plan. Your move, DOT…