Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, reportedly plans to resign his post at the expiration of President Obama’s first term in office. If he does, the business aviation community will view the exit with ambivalence.
The Obama Administration has targeted business aviation – casting operators as irresponsible elitists who don’t pay their fair share. The finger pointing coincided with a dramatic recessionary contraction in business aviation activity, resulting in the layoff of tens of thousands of workers, a severe reduction in new aircraft deliveries, and an unprecedented sell-off of used aircraft, glutting the market and slashing their value.
Despite the consequent negative feelings prevailing in Wichita towards the administration, LaHood flew there from Washington last March and delivered a speech that cheered a hangar packed with 2,000 worried Cessnans, Hawker-Beechcrafters, and Learjet workers. He said he recognized the importance of America’s general aviation industry and the 1.2 million jobs it supports, and vowed to encourage the president to come there as well. As yet no such visit has occurred, but on that day LaHood became the administration’s goodwill ambassador to the beleaguered industry, a champion with the president’s ear, finally.
However, that same month -- at LaHood’s directive -- the DOT’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) served notice that it planned to modify a program held near and dear by business aircraft operators, and the change was not at all to their liking. At issue was the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program. Established in 2000 and administered for the FAA by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), the program allowed operators to eschew having their aircrafts’ registration numbers and other relevant flight data disseminated over the Internet by the FAA while still en route.
Henceforth, according to LaHood’s plan, only those aircraft operators who could prove a “certified security concern” – to wit, a specific threat of death, kidnapping or serious bodily harm -- to those aboard, could have their flight data blocked.
The argument that making live flight tracking data available to any terrorist, felon, gossip monger or competitor in the world with an Internet connection compromised all operators’ security held no sway with the FAA. Nor did the position that such disclosure violated the granddaddy of all individual protections: The right to be left alone.
Rather, LaHood dubiously insisted that since civilian aircraft use public airspace and ATC services, the public had a right to information about their activities, regardless of an aircraft’s close identification with a particular company or individual. Moreover, he said the disclosures were in keeping with the Obama Administration’s “commitment to transparency in government.”
Unstated, but possibly an even greater motivation for LaHood’s unexpected actions were earlier news reports about the BARR program’s existence, and the implication that the government was complicit in allowing operators to use BARR to hide questionable flight activity from public scrutiny.
Stonewalled by the executive branch, NBAA, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and other alphabetters lobbied legislators and filed suit, knowing full well that both moves would anger LaHood and his boss. In the end, Congress voted to restore full blocking privileges as part of the DOT’s 2012 budget, which became law on Nov. 17. Despite that, the DOT remained stubbornly determined to modify BARR until the eve of opening courtroom arguments when Justice Department attorneys convinced LaHood’s troops that the battle was already lost, and they withdrew.
In the end, LaHood accomplished little other than to increae business aviation’s distrust of the current administration and further fortify its strengthening coalition.
The misuse of corporate aircraft hurts that company’s shareholders andbusiness aviation’s standing with the public at large, a fact regularly made clear in news accounts of such activities. Nevertheless, hobbling BARR creates an operational vulnerability to legitimate, everyday business flights while also setting an unwelcome precedent.
One of the great freedoms that underpins business aviation -- along with every other form of travel -- is the ability of individuals to go where they choose when desired, secure in their privacy. Many in business aviation feel that as the head of travel in the United States, LaHood should have understood and defended that. But for reasons still unclear, and to their abject disappointment, chose otherwise.