AIN Blog: FAA Should Leave BARR Alone

 - April 15, 2011, 12:10 PM

Early last month, the FAA published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to dramatically curtail the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program. In short, BARR allows general aviation aircraft owners to opt out of having their flight information publicly available at flight tracking providers such as FlightAware.

As proposed, the FAA’s changes to this long-established program–it was authorized 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.

While not stated in the NPRM, the proposal was pushed by Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in response to flak over a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Pro Publica in 2009 to get a list of owners that opted to have their tail numbers blocked. NBAA, which administers the BARR database at no cost to taxpayers, objected to Pro Publica’s request, setting the stage for a much publicized lawsuit.

Much to NBAA’s chagrin, Pro Publica prevailed in court last year. Scores of follow-on negative stories in the general press about the BARR program and the identities of which companies are blocking their tail numbers led to a public outcry over the program. That’s when BARR suddenly became a political issue, prompting LaHood to take up the “cause of the people.”

But by the time the bureaucratic gears finally started turning in February, when LaHood began to push for changes to BARR, the issue was all but ancient history to the general public. In fact, the NPRM hasn’t received much ink in the general media. But it has been prominently covered by the aviation press.

A 30-day public comment period ended on April 4. And if the FAA was hoping for support of this proposal, then it was in for a rude awakening. Of the 681 comments submitted, all but a handful are opposed to the changes. Nearly 2,000 NBAA members have signed a petition in opposition to the BARR changes. (If you haven’t signed the petition, NBAA says it’s still not too late.)

A couple of the public comments stand out. One is from John and Martha King of King Schools, which is perhaps the best known of the distance pilot training companies. John and Martha are well known in aviation circles, and that’s what makes them a target.

I had the opportunity to speak with John and Martha at the Sun ’n’ Fly-In earlier this month, and they told me essentially the same thing that they wrote in their public comments. (Listen to the podcast interview.)

“My wife and I use our aircraft for private transportation and participate in the BARR program,” John King wrote. “We are both somewhat public figures. My wife has had a stalker who was investigated by the FBI, and another for whom we had to call the police for removal from our office. Before we began participating in the BARR program, she had also received emails from an individual listing everywhere we had flown recently. We are not comfortable with the broadcasting of our travel intentions to all parties regardless of their motivation.”

He added, “Just because we have the technology to broadcast someone’s private travel intentions doesn’t mean we should do it. For instance, technology would allow a website to display the location of any given cellphone at any given time. The system knows where every cellphone is located. No one would suggest that broadcasting that information to anyone who wants it would be a good thing. Why then would broadcasting our location in private transportation be acceptable just because our private transportation is in an aircraft?”

While John and Martha make good arguments against the changes, the most surprising opposing comment comes from Daniel Baker, CEO of flight-tracking provider FlightAware. In fact, one of the aviation alphabet groups told me that this comment is perhaps the most eloquent of those submitted.

“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,” said Baker. “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 reduc[es] 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 mandate from President Obama” to do so.

Baker also said that if an operator’s discretion to opt 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…should be released for public scrutiny.”

The change would also be ineffective, according to Baker, because operators who wish to suppress their flight information could just re-register their aircraft in a foreign country, since these aircraft are not included in the live ATC data feeds.

With such heavy opposition from across the spectrum of commenters, the FAA really has only one option if it wants to save face: do nothing. Well, almost nothing–quietly withdrawal the NPRM and just let sleeping dogs lie.