Any pilot who flies IFR understands that the FAA is keeping track of every moment of your flight and knows exactly where you are, and where you are going. But does that need to know for air traffic control give the government the right to tell anyone in the entire world over the Internet when and where you are flying, or to present on the Internet a historical record of your trips? I don’t think so. And neither does EAA or other leading aviation groups.
The whole issue of flight tracking and reporting started in the late 1990s when the FAA created a single nationwide computerized system of tracking all aircraft flying in the IFR system. Before development of the Enhanced Traffic Flow Management System, information on IFR flights was spread out over the 20 FAA air traffic control centers. The computers in each center knew about your flight and where you were going, but the information was not organized on a nationwide scale.
The new enhanced system was very important to managing air traffic flow and cutting delays because controllers could see where weather and dense traffic was creating congestion. With this information the national traffic managers could reroute airplanes around the problem areas.
But, the new traffic flow system made exact details of every IFR flight available for the first time, and many people wanted to get their hands on that information. The Internet was growing rapidly and there is value in accurate data about all kinds of activities, including where and when you are flying your airplane.
The FAA agreed to supply the IFR traffic data to people who would post it on the Internet or in other ways use the information in for-profit ventures. That’s not a big deal for an airline because its schedule is published for all to see. But knowing movements of an airplane can tell one company what its competitor may be up to. Or it could cause security concerns for some.
Most importantly it is just plain un-American for the government to collect information about citizens and then broadcast that personal information for anyone in the whole world to see. The government has a need to know certain personal information about us and that includes the specific information detailing IFR flights in our airplanes. But the Constitution protects us from the government distributing private information to those with no requirement to know.
Privacy concerns are becoming an ever-growing issue as more information is collected about our activities. For example, if you use EZPass or one of the other automatic toll paying devices for your car a computerized record of your movements is being made. Or if you use electronic toll cards on many public transportation systems, a record of your coming and going is collected. But the government forbids publishing that information, as it should.
To address the privacy concerns of those who fly IFR, in 2000 the FAA created the blocked aircraft registration request (BARR) that allowed any airplane owner to prevent the FAA from distributing information on the flights of that N-numbered airplane. The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) manages the BARR and it’s free. All companies that post information on IFR flying activity agree to honor the BARR and not show the flights of those airplane owners who have asked to have their N numbers blocked.
The BARR system has worked great. The FAA and the security arms of the government such as TSA get information on all IFR flights, but the for-profit websites cannot show the movements of airplane owners who want privacy. There is also a companion system that allows you to unblock your N number to make your flight information available only to those who you grant access. There is a charge to unblock an N number and allow password-protected flight tracking so that a company can follow the progress of the flight of its own airplane, or family members can know where other family members are during a flight.
But for some strange reason the FAA has published a proposed rule that would essentially eliminate the BARR. If the new rule is adopted – and there is fierce resistance from EAA, NBAA, AOPA, and many business groups – all IFR flights would be broadcast except for those that could demonstrate an impossibly high security risk. I can’t imagine how this rule change eliminating BARR would help anyone, except the for-profit sites that want to sell your private flying information. I just don’t get it. Why is the FAA messing with a system that has worked so well?
Of course, a truly determined spy could find out where and when you are flying because we broadcast that information over open VHF radio frequencies when we call for an IFR clearance, or communicate with controllers en route. But that’s like saying somebody could know where you are going on a car trip by following you all the way. It’s possible, but is nothing like the government taking your private information and broadcasting it to the entire world without your permission.
The EAA has joined with other aviation groups in petitioning Congress to make preservation of the BARR a component of any new FAA funding authorization. After all, it was Congress making a new law that forced the FAA to create the BARR program back in 2000 in the first place. Let’s hope Congress sees the wisdom of its original actions, and EAA and the other groups will keep up the pressure.
As for me, I don’t block my N number because, well, I write about where I fly in Sport Aviation so it’s not really a secret. If you care, you can check up on N45FM and see where I have flown. But that’s my choice, not the government’s. And making your own choice is what freedom is all about.
UPDATE–On Friday, May 27, the Department of Transportation announced that it is going ahead with its plans to end the BARR program. The only hope now to continue the BARR program that protects the privacy of those flying in the system is for Congress to include langauge in the FAA reauthorization act that requires it.