AIN Blog: The Height of FAA Hypocrisy, Barr None

 - August 12, 2011, 10:39 AM

A turn of events this month has shown the blatant hypocrisy of the FAA in allowing, or disallowing, private aircraft operators to suppress their flight information from online flight tracking services. The FAA is being two-faced and deserves to be called out on it. Early this month–on August 2, to be exact–the FAA dismantled the Block Aircraft Registration Request (Barr) program that previously allowed any aircraft operator–no questions asked–to block its aircraft tail numbers, and thus its flights, from public view on the online flight tracker services. It has now been replaced by the new FAA Certified Security Concern (CSC) list, which technically still allows aircraft blocking but only if operators can show a “verifiable threat to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.”

That’s a very high threshold. According to one online flight-tracking provider, fewer than 10 percent of the 7,000 tail numbers/call signs that were on the Barr list have signed up for CSC to date. And it’s unknown how many of those will even be approved by the FAA; just because these operators signed up doesn’t mean that they will pass the “bona fide” threat threshold that the agency has arbitrarily imposed. NBAA and other aviation alphabet groups rightly fought the dismantling of Barr, saying that operators had plenty of reasons why they would want their aircraft to be invisible on the online flight trackers, including industrial espionage and the personal safety of those traveling aboard.

They have also filed a lawsuit in federal court to try to force the FAA to reinstate the Barr program, and court hearings will begin this fall, according to NBAA. As the sun set on Barr last week, a “call-sign service” from FltPlan has been the buzz among Part 91 operators seeking a potential solution in this Barr-less world. For an annual fee of $250, operators can use a FltPlan-owned call sign (FAA/ICAO three-letter designator is “DCM”) and flight number instead of their tail numbers. In theory, this essentially provides a Barr-like option, from a for-profit company, for private operators who are opposed to their flight information being made public on flight tracking sites.

However, it wasn’t working that way earlier this week, since aircraft using FltPlan’s DCM call sign could still be tracked on FlightAware and other online flight trackers. Worse, next to the DCM flight numbers were operators’ N-numbers. Not very anonymous.

But then something changed last night–DCM flights were no longer being shown at all on any online flight tracking service. But why? How?

A query to FltPlan revealed the answer: “Servicing agencies with call signs have the option to be blocked at the FAA level or not at all. Due to feedback from our users, we have chosen to have it blocked at the FAA level,” a spokeswoman told AIN.

This is where the hypocrisy at the FAA sits: those operators with call signs can have their flight information suppressed without having to submit any reason at all, while individual Part 91 operators cannot. It’s an unfair situation, and the FAA has a lot of explaining to do.

I certainly hope that the aviation alphabet groups will call out the agency loudly out on this one. More significantly, the FAA might have shot itself in the foot when it comes to defending the dismantling of Barr in court. Lawyers working for the plaintiffs in the Barr suit–namely, NBAA, AOPA and EAA–now have some heavy ammunition on why the program should be reinstated to its pre-August 2 state.

If operators using call signs can have their flight information suppressed on a whim, then those not using call signs should be able to do the same.