Soccer Star's Private Jet Transfer Flags Privacy Issues

 - August 16, 2021, 12:27 PM
Almost 120,000 people tracked soccer star Lionel Messi's flight from Barcelona to the French capital. (Image: FlightRadar24)

Last week’s tracking of a private jet flight taken by soccer star Lionel Messi from his former club Barcelona to his new employer Paris Saint-Germain by almost 120,000 people speaks volumes about the celebrity status of top-class athletes like the 34-year-old Argentinian superstar, who is now heading for a lucrative final payout from a two-year contract with the French team. But it also raised some eyebrows among those who question whether it should be so easy to track flights taken by high-profile individuals who may have valid security concerns.

The FlightRadar24 data made it all too clear to those in the know that the Malta-registered Bombardier Global 7500 aircraft (tail number 9H-VIB) was operated by private flight provider VistaJet. Combined with abundant news flow around Messi’s high-profile departure from the Spanish soccer institution, it provided clear details about his imminent arrival at Paris LeBourget Airport on August 10.

On numerous other occasions, the ability to track flights has been valuable to reporters and others with a high level of interest in the movements of the rich and famous, such as during last year’s escape from Tokyo by convicted automotive executive Carlos Ghosn in a chartered jet. In some cases, there have been safety concerns, such as when it was disclosed that some business aircraft have continued to operate in Belarussian airspace even after a European Commission-directed edict to steer clear in the wake of a Ryanair flight being forced to land in Minsk to enable the arrest of two political dissidents.

While the European Business Aviation Association has made clear its concerns over privacy, the industry group essentially acknowledges that there is little hope of securing the type of protection that allows aircraft tail numbers to be concealed in the U.S. There the Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed program covers the use of data through the FAA’s network. But beyond those boundaries, it is easy for third-party data sources to capture ICAO aircraft addresses directly from ADS-B Out transmissions. FAA addresses this gap through its Privacy ICAO Address program, which allows operators to use an alternate, temporary ICAO aircraft address that isn’t tied to a specific operator through its national aircraft registry.

“Since there are 26 air navigation service providers in the European Union alone and even more if we look at the Eurocontrol area, it is much more difficult to have a similar process in Europe,” explained EBAA communications manager Roman Kok. “Some of these countries also indicate that it is not a high priority for them to implement a system equivalent to the U.S. as they rightfully point out it would only cover a low percentage of flights.”

So while the EBAA is a strong advocate for the importance of privacy and security for those using business aviation as an alternative to airline services, the group for now is resigned to having to deal with the reality of flight tracking being readily available to just about anyone. “We fundamentally are in favor of enlarging privacy protection tools and we continue to monitor this issue, but unfortunately it seems we are far away from achieving a union-wide solution.”