Why is it that the bizjet community seems forever unable to get ahead of the fat cat image that seems to attract daily media stories like flies to honey? (I could use a more vulgar analogy but in a rare display of restraint, I'm applying the rules of polite society.)
One reason is how we, as an industry, respond to stories like this one in the Wall Street Journal this week. As journalism goes, it's not much of a story. It's a bit light on detail and a bit overplayed. But it does raise one uncomfortable question: Is it true that up to a third of bizjet trips are to popular resorts like Aspen and Palm Beach? And do companies who were asked about these trips really expect us to believe that these were business events? The story lacks sufficient detail to really flesh this claim out in a credible way, so I am, frankly, a little skeptical. I'm just as skeptical of the claim by company flacks that these trips are to actual business events. Yeah, right. We all know why business conferences and symposia are held in Aspen and Steamboat Springs. They're just ski trips by another name. If the destination is Marathon Key, substitute sport fishing.
But what's wrong with this? Nothing really, if the company is privately held or, if publically held, the stockholders and board are okay with the airplane being used this way. The reality is that the highly paid CEOs of companies with flight departments negotiate the best deal they can for pay and perks and if that includes personal use of the jet, so be it. They just need to understand that they are vulnerable to the fat cat claim if these trips are revealed and stockholders by all means have an interest in knowing that.
And that's where things get a little hinky. The FAA has a program called BARR (Blocked Aircraft Registration Request), which suppresses N-numbers from the otherwise publically accessible air traffic datastream that allows anyone with a computer to see the comings and goings of aircraft in domestic airspace. The ostensible reason is for security and privacy, protecting private aircraft from prying eyes for competitive reasons. Congress is now debating whether to dial this program back, requiring a higher bar and justification for the N-number suppression. I think they should just end it entirely. The FAA is publically funded, works in the public interest and it shouldn't be in the business of disguising aircraft movements. If security is really an issue, don't release the data in real time, offset it by 24 hours for those who request that.
In defending the continuation of BARR, NBAA makes the utterly unconvincing argument that there's no compelling public interest to have this information in public view and that it's a violation of privacy. But I'd argue that there are two good countervailing reasons: One is just the principle of sunshine in government operations in the first place, the second is that stockholders ought to be able to verify how these bizjets are used so they can ask the right questions if they're so inclined. The FAA shouldn't put itself in the position of shilling for these companies. And I doubt if the claims of competitive revelations are meaningful in many of the cases, unless we're talking about competing for the best lift chairs at Aspen.
The thing is, if we continue to argue that aircraft are an important business tool--and I believe that to be true--the way they are used ought to stand up to any scrutiny. Burying otherwise public information behind a wall of FAA secrecy just raises suspicions and makes the industry a big juicy plum for the fat cat claim. That strikes me as counter interest.
Government has a well-established predilection for secrecy that should be resisted at every turn, especially when it involves trivial revelations like this. Right now, for example, I'm being forced to file a FOIA claim to shine a little light on the FAA ARC fuel committee activities. This should not be. Activities like this need to be out in the open.