WASHINGTON, D.C. — The decision by the Department of Transportation to change the rules and let anyone in the world follow any general aviation aircraft on an instrument flight plan — departure point, route and destination — may be challenged in court by three of GA’s alphabet groups. The National Business Aviation Association, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and Experimental Aircraft Association are preparing to seek an injunction to prevent the change from taking effect and then ask the court to invalidate the change all together.
Since 1997, air carriers, corporations that own their own aircraft, professional aviation organizations, and government agencies have had access to real time flight information about airlines and general aviation through Aircraft Situational Display to Industry (ASDI) and National Airspace System Status Information (NASSI) websites. Other members of the public have been able to subscribe to the information. However, through the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program, any general aviation operator who wished could block the release of flight plan information for privacy reasons. If BARR is eliminated, such information may be blocked only for “a valid security concern,” according to DOT officials.
Elimination of the BARR program was announced by the DOT May 27 and published in the Federal Register June 2. It goes into effect Aug. 2 unless the threatened court action is successful or the DOT doesn’t recognize the weakness of its reasons for eliminating BARR.
One reason stated by Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation, for eliminating the BARR program is that “both general aviation and commercial aircraft use the public airspace and air traffic control facilities, and the public has a right to information about their activities.” The weakness of this argument is that streets, highways, and waterways are also public. This raises the question that if departure point, route, and destination cannot be a private matter for aircraft, would the same information for autos, busses, trucks, and boats also be subject to required public release?
A second reason offered by LaHood is the move to let anyone know the who, what, when and where of aircraft movements “is in keeping with the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency in government.” Of course, the movements of general aviation are not government actions, but perhaps the good secretary doesn’t know this.
As Craig Fuller, AOPA president and CEO, said, ironically, “the DOT blocks out movements of its own aircraft — a right it wants to deny to citizens.” Perhaps the secretary isn’t aware that DOT is part of the government, which he says is to be transparent.
“We are outraged at the government’s move,” said Ed Bolen, NBAA’s president and CEO. “This incomprehensible policy reversal gives anyone in the world — terrorist, criminal, tabloid stalker, business competitor — the equivalent of a homing device to track the movement of citizens and companies in real time.”
Rod Hightower, EAA president and CEO, said his group should have the same privacy rights as all other citizens, noting DOT’s announced elimination of BARR “is a significant step in removing our privacy rights as aviators and as American citizens.”
Some in general aviation also see the possibility of the elimination of privacy resulting in added danger to some flights. Pilots not wanting their every move known might fly VFR in marginal weather instead of filing an IFR flight plan.
The three organizations banding together in the legal challenge action are not the only opponents to the questionable DOT elimination of BARR. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are a few of the other groups that have opposed the elimination of BARR.
The outcome of the latest attempt by both Houses of Congress to finally get agreement for a full-term reauthorization of the FAA could also affect the DOT announcement to eliminate BARR. Reauthorization passed by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives has a provision that would keep the BARR program. The version passed in the Senate does not have such a provision. Conferees are trying to reach agreement on FAA reauthorization before the 19th short-term extension expires June 30.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.