A solution in search of a problem… is a BIG problem

March 4, 2011 by Craig Fuller

You should always be concerned about new federal regulations that reach your desk on a Friday afternoon! Like the one that came across my desk today to remove a privacy provision for flights by private aircraft.

Honestly, this is one of those end-of-the-week ideas that is so stunning I was at a loss about how to respond.  Then, I imagined the kind of discussion that might have occurred between the Department of Transportation and the Office of Management and Budget. Could it have happened like this?


OMB:  Hello,  Office of Regulatory Review.

DOT:  Hey, DOT here. We’ve got an idea to kick around with you.

OMB:  OK. Do you want to create a new regulation or get rid of one?

DOT:  Well, we kind of want to get rid of one….

OMB:  That’s great! We are trying to eliminate regulations!

DOT:  Well, this one is tricky, because what we want to do is eliminate some people’s right to privacy when they travel, but we think it is really in the government’s interest.

OMB:  Wait a minute….who are these people? Terrorists? Criminals? Tax evaders?

DOT:  No.  We’re talking about pilots who fly planes.

OMB:  What kind of planes?

DOT:  Well, all kinds really.  You see we require these pilots in private planes to give us a lot of information if they are going to make a flight using their instruments.

OMB:  I guess that’s a good thing. So, the problem is that they don’t like to do that?

DOT:  No, they are happy to do that. But, then what we do is make agreements with companies that want to track those planes, and we release the information about the aircraft and where it is going.

OMB:  Is this for some kind of historical reason?

DOT:  Not really. Actually, it’s released in almost real time so that, if you know the number on the tail of a plane, really anyone can track it around the country.

OMB:  You lost me. You take this information about private pilots flying private planes that they own and you make it available to everyone?  Why would people give you this information in the first place?

DOT:  Well, we’re DOT. They have to give it to us to file a flight plan.

OMB:  So, you want to get rid of this program?

DOT:  No, no. We like the program.  In fact, over at the FAA we are going to modernize the air traffic control system and collect even more information on more aircraft.  What we want to eliminate is a provision that allows people to protect their privacy!

OMB:  You mean, you have people who allow you at DOT to track their aircraft….they are OK with that…..but, they have privacy concerns about the federal government turning that information over to companies who then make it available to anyone!!??  I guess I am not surprised that they would want to protect their privacy.

DOT:  Well, we’ll let people maintain their privacy if they have death threats against them or if they are flying into areas where terrorists have been active.

OMB:  What was that? How would you determine this?  What if someone just wants to protect their privacy?

DOT:  Well….why is that our problem?  I mean, we are talking about someone who is flying a plane….

OMB:  But, you said it is their own airplane. Shouldn’t we consider their privacy concerns?

DOT:  That’s not really our concern.

OMB:  Seems like there are a whole lot of implications we should be looking into. I mean, what are you going to do with all the data you have on automobiles traveling through EZ Pass toll gates?

DOT:  Wow! There’s a thought. That opens up a whole new opportunity, sharing information on who uses EZ Pass…. I’ll get back to you on that. 

If this concerns you– and it does me – send a comment to the Department of Transportation at the address below.

By the way, at AOPA we do not block our registration numbers and I do not block the number on my personal aircraft.  As a membership organization, it’s appropriate for our members to know where we are going and how we are using our private aircraft.  However, I do believe that those same members have every right to privacy with regard to their aircraft.  It should be their decision to take advantage of a program that has worked just fine and about which no one seems to have complaints….except, apparently, someone at DOT.

Send comments to: 

US Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140
Washington, D.C.  20590

Or, fax in a comment to:  202/493-2251

Be sure to include Docket Number FAA-2011-0183 at the top of your comments.

I should tell you, DOT says it will post all comments received, without change, including any personal information you provide. (At least they are consistent in their enthusiasm for disclosure).

  • Louis Betti

    I would also like complete tracking of all passenger cars provided to DOT management / employees. This, of course is to ensure that they are always used strictly for DOT business. Otherwise, why does the DOT need to know about my travel in private aircraft? Answer, nothing! If the DOT wants to track me, then I want to look at every DOT employee / vehicle under a magnifying glass. Make that EVERY government employee! I also want to track any and all DOT / government employees and all flights they make on government and privately owned aircraft, and want complete audits conducted on those travels. Why don’t we take a long, hard look at the DOT and similar agencies and how they are traveling and what they are doing?

  • Mase Taylor

    When DOT, FAA, NTSB, and TSA are willing to have their personal automobile and government-issued vehicles including aircraft tracked in real time and available on the internet to anyone, then I will agree this is a good idea.

    The opt-out provision should be retained for those who so choose. Period

  • Verl Scheibe

    I agree with Louis Betti, and Mase Taylor in regards to monitoring the personal use of transportation means of the DOT, FAA,NTSB, TSA, and while at it, congressmen and senators. Maybe there is an ulterior motive ? I know it would discourage me from flying. Perhaps this boarders on paranoia, but I think if Germany had the technology in the 30’s they would have done that exact thing.

  • Gerry Hurst

    This is a typical bureaucrat ploy to expand his employee base, thus justifying a raise.

  • Peter Nussbickel

    I think this is a great idea. I’d also like to have everyone license plates on their cars in a data base like my airplane’s N number so when I see a good looking women driving down the road, I can run the license plate, see where she lives, if her car is paid for, and where it’s parked at night. This would save me a lot of money on drinks at a bar to get to know more about them. I’m sure it would make them feel more secure also.

    CAN THEY THINK OF ANYTHING MORE STUPID THAN THIS????? Oh wait a minute, it is the US GOV’T.

  • Chip Davis

    hmm… all the comparisons to EZ-pass and personal automobiles seem like compelling arguments. I wonder why such a proposal has not been floated for car and boats before. Oh, right,. Personal aircraft are the only ones registered with a Federal Agency.

    The solution is obvious: revert to the earliest days of aviation when aircraft (and pilots) were registered with the state of residence. It’s reasonable (and the original justification) to have federal oversight of commercial vehicles (buses/tractor-trailers, airliners/aircargo, cruise/container ships, passenger rail/boxcars) but personal transportation vehicles should be the province of the States.

    Until that fundamental distinction is established, we can expect a recurring series of such inane proposals.

  • Dan P

    Here’s a reply I sent last week in case you want to copy it.

    To whom it may concern:
    As private aircraft owners we demand that we be treated consistent with private automobile owners. Similar to automobile travel in the age of EZ-Pass, there is no reason that any entity should have information on when and where we travel, by air or by car, except the government (in certain instances), and the owner/operator of the vehicle. The FAA is charged with providing the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world, not tracking or disseminating the movements of any individual, for any other purpose, with information that is a by-product of it’s mission. Merely because the FAA requires us to give it certain data in order to utilize the airspace system, is an insufficient argument for making this data public.

    Vehicular movements collected through EZ-Pass and other automobile tolling systems are not public information. It is a violation of our right to privacy. The use of electronic tolling systems while accessing the public highway system is “voluntary”, yet almost a prerequisite, given the majority toll booths are now electronically monitored. Notwithstanding the fact that highways are public space, the data gathered in this process of managing vehicular traffic and associated tolls is accorded a Privacy Status. This is consistent with the United States Supreme Court Ruling in Katz vs. the United States where the Supreme Court agreed that there is a Right to Privacy in public areas.

    Similarly, pilots and aircraft owners participate in the Air Traffic Control system because it is required for IFR flight. It is additionally a safety benefit for VFR flight and promoted as the FAA’s mission is safety and efficiency. This is consistent with automotive travel and the Right to Privacy for travel by airplane should be accorded consistently. Notwithstanding that the Victor Airways are public space, there is a right to privacy in public areas that should preclude the disclosure of the information gathered by the government as a result of a required or voluntary participation. None of this data on private travel should be available to anyone other than the pilot/owner and the government. The fact that pilot/owners have to opt. out is an added burden not faced by any automotive owner/operator as it is, and is inconsistent.

    From a national/local security perspective, the information of those pilot/owners who opt. out of having their private travel information on display, is a non-issue as the information remains readily available to all levels of government and law enforcement. Therefore, the legitimate security interests of the government are ensured.

    From a pilot/owner security perspective, making the private movements and travel history of private individuals instantly available to anonymous members of the public puts the safety and privacy of the pilot/owner at much greater risk from unknown persons who may wish to do them harm. Given the United States Supreme Court Ruling in Katz vs. the United States, this would also seem to create a basis for legal liability of the government if any action occurred that resulted in damage to life or property resulting from the publication of said transportation information.

    Regarding a “valid security concern”, only the entity requesting that the privacy of the aircraft movement be protected can make a fully informed decision as to their risk, the risk of their passengers and property. The government is not in a position to make this assessment. To limit this protection only to those who can prove that they have already been victimized is counter-productive. It is also not consistent with the government’s pre-emptive security policy effectuated through No-Fly Lists.

    Regarding business activities and industrial espionage, in the case of public and privately held businesses, competitors and stock market traders who have access to the travel records of aircraft can use them to shadow executives, anticipate corporate acquisitions, gather intelligence and otherwise create an unfair advantage in business.

    Regarding the FAA’s mission, the result of making this information public would likely have a detrimental effect on the utilization of the airspace system and the associated, desired improvement in airspace safety. Users would choose to not use the system to protect their privacy. Most owners are the operator of the aircraft and publication of the movement of the aircraft is tantamount to publication of the movement of the owner. A corollary example of this is easily seen from the airspace system in Europe and the lack of utilization that has resulted (in their case for prohibitive cost reasons).

    To conclude, as private aircraft owners we demand that we be treated consistent with private automobile owners. There is no compelling public benefit from a policy which effectively makes the private travel of individuals public and, it is a violation of our Right to Privacy, whether we travel by car, plane, train or other vehicle. Merely because the FAA requires us to give it certain data, is an insufficient argument for making this data public. Notwithstanding the fact that highways or airways are public space, the data gathered in the process of managing vehicular traffic is accorded a Privacy status. This is consistent with the United States Supreme Court Ruling in Katz vs. the United States where the Supreme Court agreed that there is a Right to Privacy in public areas, and that should be the basis for limiting the access to this information to the government (in certain cases), and the owner/operator of the vehicle.

  • Douglas E. Drummond

    Back in the old days when mechanical travel was Steam Train or Steam Ship, railroad station agents were required to keep travel plans private so that criminals would not know who was out of town and easy picking for burglary. The same issue applies to ALL aircraft owners.

    There is an analogous fight going on in the Illinois State Legislature–making public information collected for Firearms Owner’s ID cards. This provides a shopping list for criminals who steal legal firearms. Most people with legal firearms in the City of Chicago DO NOT register their shotguns and rifles because the gang members’ girlfriends doing city clerical work provide a shopping list for gang members.

  • Chris Pfaff

    Please NAME the NAME of the Government Employee(s) who came up with this idea.
    First, fire them. We, the People, who collectively are their and your employer, demand that every such person who treads on our privacy be fired, never to work in the Public Sector again.
    Second, the U.S. DoT needs to IMMEDIATELY DROP plans to implement further privacy-invading plans. Such plans are NOT in your Constitutional mandate, therefore, you are breaking the Law.
    Cease and desist from such behaviors and proposals and laws.

  • Doug Mahn

    Why just track our aircraft? How about putting a chip in our necks so they can track our EVERY move?
    That way; if I tell the wife that I’m going to the store, she can look on the internet to make certain that I am where I said I would be, right down to the aisle of the store.

    Perhaps there should be an opposite sex proximity alert, as well, including all information on them…

    (Yes, the wife came up with that farce while scoffing at the very idea)