Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

How Elites Keep Their Private Planes Off the Radar

A little-known program lets private plane owners block their flights from view in the government’s system for tracking air traffic.

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[1] , 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.

Blocking Flights: How It Works View Graphic

But in at least some cases, the program has also served as a refuge for plane owners who’ve faced bad publicity, according to a review by ProPublica of 1,100 blocked planes in the program. The list was obtained after a 15-month public records battle in which the business aviation group sued[2] the FAA to keep it confidential.

After a federal judge ruled[3] that the records are public, the FAA provided the list this week.

It includes aircraft registered to Fortune 500 companies such as 3M and Tyson Foods, private real estate developers, government agencies and evangelical churches. There are 62 Gulfstream IVs and Vs, which cost tens of millions of dollars each, 36 Learjets and two Boeing 737s.

Registered owners include:

  • College booster clubs and athletic programs for the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi, who blocked flights to hide coaching searches and recruiting trips.
  • The CEO of Hooters, who along with other business partners, has a blocked jet to conduct surprise checks on restaurants, according to the company.
  • Owners of newspapers that have fought for access to public records, including Journal Enterprises, owner of the Albuquerque Journal, and Sam Zell, chairman of the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

How the list came to be


Get ProPublica's Top Stories and Major Investigations Delivered to Your Inbox

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[4] post the data online, allowing anyone to observe the system and follow most planes virtually in real time.

Chuck Collins, who has studied[5] (PDF) the costs of private jet travel for the progressive Institute for Policy Studies[6] , 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.

See more stories tagged with: