Off the Radar: Private Planes Hidden From Public View

Televangelist Kenneth Copeland faced a congressional inquiry after flying his ministry’s tax-exempt jet to Maui and the Fiji Islands.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds has been questioned about his use of state planes for political and personal trips.

And after getting a $180 billion federal bailout, the insurance giant AIG caught flak for its fleet of corporate jets.

To prevent the public from seeing where they fly, all have over the years turned to a little-known program that lets private plane owners block their flights from view in the government’s system for tracking air traffic.

The owners don’t have to meet any test to keep their flights secret. They merely submit a request to the National Business Aviation Association, a trade group that lobbied to set up the program on the grounds that secrecy is justified to protect business deals and the security of executives.

Use of the national airspace is generally considered public information because pilots – whether airline captains or recreational fliers – rely on a system of air traffic controllers, radars, runways and taxiways, lighting systems and towers that are all paid for or subsidized by taxpayers.

As a result, flight data collected by the FAA in its air traffic control system – except for military and sensitive government flights – is public information. Web sites such as FlightAware post the data online, allowing anyone to observe the system and follow most planes virtually in real time.

Chuck Collins, who has studied (PDF) the costs of private jet travel for the progressive Institute for Policy Studies, said the public has a right to monitor such flights because taxpayers and commercial passengers heavily support business aviation.

“It’s the use of the public commons,” he said. “It belongs to all of us. It’s not a private preserve. It’s not a country club.”

Dan Hubbard, spokesman for the business aviation association, which helps to administer the program, called the Block Aircraft Registration Request program, or BARR, said privacy is important because businesses worry that competitors could watch them, potentially disclosing deals that could move stock prices.

“Our members tell NBAA that there are certain circumstances where there is a security concern, and that’s why they want to avail themselves of the BARR program,” he said. The program drew attention in November 2008 after the Big Three auto executives were criticized for taking corporate jets to ask Congress for financial help, prompting General Motors to block its flights.