The Department of Transportation’s recent notice that it will dismantle most the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program, which hides corporate aircraft activity from online flight-tracking programs, has caused quite a stir.
Aviation’s alphabet organizations have risen up against the transparency initiatives the feds have used to justify the change. Trusted voices in the aviation grapevine suggest that DOT Secretary Ray LaHood had his own reasons for voting yes on the dropping the curtain. NBAA administers BARR for its 3,000 members, and it says removing the veil of privacy from corporate operations “gives anyone in the world – terrorist, criminal, tabloid stalker, business competitor – the equivalent of an Internet homing device to track the movements of citizens and companies in real time.”
Perhaps, but I don’t buy it. One source does not make or break a plot to get someone. Flight trackers show where an airplane is going, not who’s on it. The skeptic in me thinks something else more sinister is behind it all. First, remember the seemingly endless negative PR storm that followed when CEOs seeking a government handout arrived in their expensive corporate carriages. Then think about the ardor with which corporate America fights any manner of regulation.
Okay, with memory refreshed, ask yourself this question: What scares our corporate aristocracy more than any terrorist, criminal, tabloid stalker, or business competitor? How about close scrutiny of their activities by, in increasing levels of terror, the public, the government, and—gasp!—their shareholders.
BARR hides corporate flight activity, but not deep enough to keep it safe from a Freedom of Information Act request. That’s how the Wall Street Journal got its hands on the “records of every private aircraft flight recorded in the FAA’s air-traffic management system for the four years form 2007 to 2010.” The headline of their research and analysis of this data says it all: For the Highest Fliers, New Scrutiny.
The reporters summarized their findings this way: “Those with access to private jets fly around the globe on a whim, steering clear of security lines and never being charged extra for baggage.”
Hmm, I bet the soldiers coming home from Afghanistan on Delta might have something to say about that. Although, to be fair, too many soldiers fly home from Dover Air Force Base in a corporate jet, but they are not alive to enjoy the door-to-door service. But I digress.
The FAA records cover approximately 6.7 million flights by business jets over the four-year period, said the WSJ article, “costing at least $26 billion and and burning roughly three billion gallons of aviation fuel. About one-third of the trips were to or from a group of 300 resort destinations—places such as Palm Beach, Aspen, Las Vegas, Nantucket, the Bahamas and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.”
Certainly, legitimate company business is often conducted at such resort destinations; when the MBAs are calling the shots, why not go someplace nice to get a little work done? Still, the skeptic in me asks why, and being good skeptics, the reporters called the corporations that most often did business at resort destinations. They all said the same thing: “No comment.”
Consider, on the other hand, the four jets “that recorded the largest number of flights over the four year period.” Often making a half-dozen flights a day, all four belong to Menards, a privately-held, Wisconsin-based home improvement chain. “A Menard spokesman said the jets are an efficient way for employees to conduct on-site visits and training at widely-scattered stores” in the Midwest.
Whether the FAA will actually no longer have to BARR outside scrutiny of corporate aviation activities ultimately depends on Congress. The House has added language to the FAA reauthorization bill that preserves this veil of secrecy. But the corporate aristocracy probably should not hold its breath on this. How many times has Congress kicked the FAA reauthorization down the road, 19 times now? Or is it 20? –Scott Spangler