Illustration: John T. Lewis
Illustration: John T. Lewis

Maintaining privacy in the age of transparency

Efforts to track business aircraft flights are increasing, but new protections for passengers may be on the way.

How private is your private jet? Bloomberg, Reuters, and other financial media reported recently that research firms were tracking aircraft owned by public companies and advising clients about potential deals based on the airplanes’ movements. Michael Kors’s acquisition of Versace, a Berkshire Hathaway investment in Occidental Petroleum, and Conagra’s $10.9 billion purchase of Pinnacle Foods were all tipped by corporate jet travel activity, according to Bloomberg.

Financial sleuthing aside, the security risks that travelers on business aircraft may face due to their wealth, power, or celebrity create privacy concerns.

The good news is that if you charter, have a jet card, and/or own a fractional share in an aircraft, you’re largely safe from this type of prying. But if you own or operate a business aircraft, next-generation tracking technology now required onboard makes this kind of surveillance easier than ever at the moment, though business aviation interests and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration are rushing to fashion protections. 

Traditionally, business analysts’ research on flight activity has been gathered the old-fashioned way: using publicly available FAA air traffic data to see which airplanes are going where; parsing and investigating registration databases to determine owners’ identities (which are often purposely hidden behind shell companies holding title to aircraft); and boots-on-the-ground intelligence from various sources. 

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The FAA instituted the Block Aircraft Registry Request (BARR) program in 2000 to provide privacy on request, allowing operators to bar the agency from disseminating the identity of their aircraft in data feeds from air traffic radar. But a GPS-based technology, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out—which virtually all business and commercial aircraft were required to have installed by January 1 of this year—provides public access to information about private aircraft identities while offering no blocking options, rendering BARR protection moot.

A critical component of the NextGen air navigation system, ADS-B broadcasts the movement and precise location of each aircraft. This will allow packing more airplanes into the same airspace, and the eventual scrapping of today’s more expensive but less precise radar tracking system. But the ADS-B system’s database, maintained by the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO’s) Civil Aviation Registry (CAR), links every aircraft’s unique ADS-B signal to its registration number. 

In the U.S., third-party trackers like FlightAware get the ADS-B data directly from the FAA, and it’s also easily received by off-the-shelf technology, whether for use by high-tech airplane spotters or by entities disseminating the information in the name of the public’s right to know, such as the ADS-B Exchange co-op, which maintains a global antenna network. 

But privacy proponents argue there is no public right to know and that rules should be the same in the public airspace as on public roads, where one needn’t worry that a motorist can Google a license plate number and find out who owns a car, that person’s address, and other currently non-public information.

As noted, if you use air charter, the aircraft registration can’t tie you to a particular flight, even if the airplane and ownership are identified. Jet card holders are likewise anonymous occupants as far as current tracking technologies are concerned. Fractional owners could actually throw a greenhorn spotter off track: once a fractional aircraft’s registration is identified, a sleuth could learn the multiple owners’ identities—or at least that of the entities through which these assets are typically possessed. But identifying passengers on a flight would be nearly impossible because fractional owners rarely fly on the specific aircraft to which their share is linked. 

Two more comforting thoughts: the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 directs the agency to safeguard privacy protections for private aircraft amidst technology upgrades, and two blocking solutions are on the cusp of introduction: the Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed (LADD) and Privacy ICAO Address (PIA) programs.

As a first step under both, the FAA is establishing new terms-of-service agreements with tracking services to limit the data they can share and creating opt-out paths for owners and operators. As we went to press, the service agreements were expected to be in place by the beginning of this year. (Both programs allow access to unfiltered data for vetted organizations with a need to know, such as law-enforcement agencies.)

The LADD program, which will replace BARR, also requires tracking services to demonstrate their ability to block real-time and historical data of shielded aircraft from public display. In addition, LADD beefs up FAA enforcement penalties against violators, including suspension or termination of access to FAA data. Opt-out requests will be submitted via a dedicated web page, mail, or email. And LADD will allow you to request “FAA Source Blocking,” which prohibits your data’s dissemination beyond the FAA; or “Subscriber Blocking,” limiting its availability to select vendors. Also under review is an option to let owners and operators designate the specific vendors to share data with—for example, a contracted maintenance or flight-tracking service—but that functionality won’t be available at introduction. 

Once LADD is in place, the FAA will automatically transition current BARR registrants to the program.

But LADD blocks only data routed through the FAA; ADS-B transmissions with all identifying data can be received directly from aircraft. To address that vulnerability, PIA will let operators use alternate, temporary ICAO aircraft addresses untied to any airframe in the CAR, making the aircraft’s registration unknowable. Moreover, once FAA Source Blocking is in place, the FAA won’t provide tracking data of any PIA aircraft to aircraft-tracking vendors (including any you may have hired to track your flights).

In Phase 1 of PIA, the FAA established a web portal for the filing of blocking requests, which is not exactly a user-friendly process. After filing a request with the necessary documentation, you should get a PIA, or temporary ICAO address, via email within 10 days. You then have 30 days to program the ADS-B transponder with the assigned PIA, fly in ADS-B coverage airspace, and complete the verification process on the website. If you do so successfully, the FAA will proclaim the verification complete and send final confirmation via email. The process will need to be repeated every few weeks.

In Phase 2, expected to commence in mid-2020, third-party service providers will assume administration of PIA. 

For maximum protection, you should participate in both LADD and PIA once these programs are in place. In the meantime, if you need to maintain absolute privacy for business or security reasons, you may have to leave your own airplane on the ground (or send it on some diversionary missions) and use charter, a jet card, or a fractional share.