For the Highest Fliers, New Scrutiny

The total eclipse of the sun last summer was visible only from a tiny sliver of the South Pacific. Google Inc. founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were among the few to see it—they flew there by private jet.

Two of the Google founders' planes flew the eight-plus hours from the U.S. mainland to Tahiti last July just before the eclipse, Federal Aviation Administration flight records show. Mr. Brin was spotted taking photos through a telescope as the pair watched the event from an island dock. Afterward, they posed for a snapshot with a fellow eclipse-watcher.

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. Their flight paths are generally hidden from view through a federally approved program that keeps certain aircraft movements "blocked" from the public.

The Wall Street Journal has penetrated this hidden world. Via a Freedom of Information Act request, the Journal acquired records of every private aircraft flight recorded in the FAA's air-traffic management system for the four years from 2007 through 2010—which includes those flights previously blocked from public view.

 

Frank Taylor, Sergey Brin and Larry Page on an island near Tahiti in July of 2010 to witness the solar eclipse. KAREN TAYLOR

Access to the flight records comes as the FAA, arguing that air-traffic information is public, is considering opening up more of its flight-records system. The agency has said that releasing the information wouldn't violate privacy laws because it doesn't include the identity of the passengers or the purpose of the flights. It would still allow blocking by those who can demonstrate that release of the information would pose a significant security threat. The FAA declined to comment.

Business and aviation groups oppose the move. Many corporate owners say they seek privacy for competitive reasons, fearing rivals could discern sensitive information from the flight records, such as meetings with suppliers and customers. Others have security concerns about their aircraft movements being available online. "It's about allowing unknown third parties to be able to sit at an Internet connection…and be able to track the movements of U.S. citizens," said Ed Bolen, chief executive of the National Business Aviation Association, which administers the blocking program.

Adds John L. Sullivan, a Richardson, Tex., aviation-security consultant who formerly headed security for Texas Instruments Inc.: "There are a number of criminals, terrorists, and unstable people" who could find out a plane is going to a particular airport "and set up on somebody."

The Journal is making available on its website a database drawn from historical flight records it obtained from the FAA, which doesn't include any real-time data that some owners consider especially sensitive. The online tool allows readers to find where thousands of planes have traveled over a four-year period, and in many cases, the planes' owners or operators.

For each flight, the Journal also listed estimated costs, including how much fuel was burned, but excluding the fixed costs to buy, insure and staff the planes. Many private-jet owners foot the entire bill for their travels. Others, including top executives who fly on company jets, sometimes reimburse for the cost of personal travel, too.

Some private-jet owners don't appear to be fazed by the prospect of their past plane movements becoming public. "I have a plane. I bought it so I could use it. Shocking, isn't it?" said Mark Cuban, a tech-boom billionaire who owns the Dallas Mavericks, in an email. A Gulfstream G-550 registered to Mr. Cuban's Radical Ventures LLC has flown often to Los Angeles, New York, the Cayman Islands and Las Vegas, among other locales, the FAA records show.

As might be expected, the migration patterns of private-jet fliers vary with the season, the flight information shows. From New York-area airports, the most popular resort destination for private jets is Palm Beach, Fla. Peak time is President's Day weekend in February, when an average of 119 private jets annually make the trek south, four times the average weekend traffic. Other peaks occur around Christmas and New Year's, and January's Martin Luther King holiday. Donald Trump's Boeing 727 flew to Palm Beach 82 times over the four years.

When the winter season ends in Palm Beach, some of the same jets start flying from New York to the Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, where private-jet traffic peaks around July 4th and in August.

 

A prime example: Ziff Brothers Investments, which runs money for three brothers who are heirs to a publishing fortune. Last year, its four jets landed 97 times at Palm Beach, where the family owns an oceanfront complex, and 40 times at Martha's Vineyard, where one brother, Dirk Ziff, owns a home. A spokesman didn't comment.

From Los Angeles-area airports, the most popular resort destination for private-jet travel is Las Vegas, followed by Palm Springs, Calif., and Scottsdale, Ariz. Private jets leaving Chicago tend to head south out of the cold, with South Florida—including Naples, Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach—ranking as the most popular resort destination.

Glitzy Aspen, Colo., is both a winter and summer retreat and draws strongly from jet-setters almost everywhere in the country. Among the most frequent Aspen visitors: planes operated by TPG Capital, a private-equity firm formerly known as Texas Pacific Group. They landed at least 217 times in the mountain retreat over the four years. David Bonderman, the billionaire co-founder of Ft. Worth, Tex.-based TPG, owns a home in Aspen. A spokesman declined to comment.

Some companies make trips to vacation spots they say double as business locations. Halliburton Co. jets landed a total of 110 times at an airstrip on Marathon Key, in the Florida Keys, over the four years. The airport is a short drive from a retreat on Duck Key owned by the oil-services concern, which a spokeswoman said is used exclusively for "business-related activities" by Halliburton personnel and clients.

News Corp., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, operates three jets, according to FAA records. The most frequent landing spot outside of the company's New York headquarters was Los Angeles, with 273 arrivals during the four-year period. A spokeswoman declined to comment.

Messrs. Page and Brin, the Google co-founders, operate at least four aircraft registered under various companies that aren't connected to Google, FAA and other aviation records show: a Boeing 767, a Boeing 757, plus two Gulfstream G-V's. During the four-year period, the jets' most frequent destinations outside of their northern California base were Los Angeles, New York and Washington.

For last year's eclipse-viewing journey, the 767 and a Gulfstream V each made two round-trips from the U.S. mainland to Tahiti. Those flights used an estimated 52,000 gallons of aviation fuel and in total cost upwards of $430,000, according to calculations by Conklin & de Decker Aviation Information. The research firm is hired by some public companies to provide aircraft-cost estimates for regulatory filings.

A Google spokeswoman confirmed that the Tahiti journey was for the eclipse, saying the pair brought a group with them on the planes. Messrs. Page and Brin have mitigated the greenhouse gas emissions from their aircraft usage by purchasing an even greater amount of carbon offsets, she said. They also frequently lend their planes for philanthropic and scientific missions.

Amid ongoing debate about whether private-jet records should be part of the public domain, there have been other efforts to discover information related to the FAA's blocked-aircraft list. Last year, nonprofit news organization ProPublica obtained a partial list of blocked planes, some 1,200 tail numbers.

The FAA later made its proposal to curtail the blocking program. The matter is now in the hands of Congress, where the House has passed a bill that would stop the FAA from making the change, while a Senate-approved version doesn't contain the same provision. The Journal has gone beyond previous attempts to access the information, obtaining flight records of every private jet in the U.S., about one-third of which have recently been blocked.

 

Much of the travel reflected in the FAA data is far less exotic than eclipse-trips to Tahiti. The four jets in the U.S. that recorded the largest number of flights over the four-year period, for example, are all owned by Menard Inc., a privately-held chain of home-improvement stores based in Eau Claire, Wisc. The planes often make a half-dozen flights a day, traveling to locations such as Marshall, Minn., Sioux Falls, S.D., and Manhattan, Kan.

A Menard spokesman said the jets are an efficient way for employees to conduct on-site visits and training at widely-scattered stores.

Still, the large percentage of jet flights that involve travel to ritzy resort destinations suggests that the vehicles often are used for vacation getaways. There were at least 6.7 million private-jet flights recorded by the FAA system over the four year period, costing at least $26 billion 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.

A few of the super-rich own or operate multiple jets. Bill Gates during the four year period owned four jets plus a helicopter through various private entities. At least one plane has been recently sold. The most-frequently visited spots for those planes were Washington; Palm Springs, where Mr. Gates has been spotted playing golf; and Bozeman, Mont., near the exclusive Yellowstone Club to which he belongs. The planes also flew to the African nations of Mali and Tanzania.

The database also hints at Mr. Gates' well-known friendship with fellow billionaire Warren Buffett: The planes landed a total of 18 times in Omaha, Neb., home to Mr. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., where Mr. Gates also serves on the board.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen operated three jets through a firm called Vulcan Flight Management, aviation records show, including a Boeing 757 he recently sold to Donald Trump.

The aircraft flew frequently in the four-year period to Los Angeles, Santa Fe, N.M. and Nice, France. One of the planes, a Gulfstream V, flew from Seattle to a game park in South Africa late last May, then returned via Kenya three weeks later. A spokesman for Mr. Allen declined to comment.

Sometimes it's difficult to tell who operates particular jets. A Boeing Business Jet registered to a limited-liability company at the address of a Los Angeles law firm is a case in point. A 2008 regulatory filing by Dreamworks Animation SKG Inc., however, revealed that the aircraft's joint owners are Hollywood producer and director Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Outside of southern California, the most frequent destination for the jet over the four years has been the Hamptons, where Mr. Spielberg owns a vacation home. A spokesman declined to comment.

Then there's actor John Travolta, an avid pilot who owns three jets with registration numbers ending in "JT", including a Boeing 707. The planes last year flew a total of 111 times from an Ocala, Fla., airstrip near Mr. Travolta's residence, to Clearwater, Fla., the headquarters of the Church of Scientology to which he belongs. A publicist acknowledged Mr. Travolta is a pilot, but declined other comment. A representative from the Church of Scientology declined to comment.

Other celebrities with their own planes include Oprah Winfrey, whose Bombardier Global Express landed 122 times at Santa Barbara, Calif., close to a giant estate she owns, often departing Chicago on Friday afternoons or evenings.