Twitter CEO Elon Musk made headlines in December when, despite his free speech proclamations, he suspended an account that tracked his private jet using only publicly available information. But what if billionaires who don’t own social media platforms could also conceal their newsworthy flight patterns from the press and public? And what if they could do so on the U.S. taxpayer dime?
Well, turns out they can. The Federal Aviation Administration began publishing flight location data in 1997 but, in 2000, it began scrubbing its data regarding private aircraft upon request from their owners. The owners don’t pay for the service. The Obama administration briefly required private jet owners to submit certifications justifying their requests, but, after pressure from industry groups, Congress reinstated the no-questions-asked policy.
The FAA’s funding is up for reauthorization later this year. Congress should take the opportunity to ensure that the new funding bill leaves these taxpayer-funded secrecy programs in the past. Flight tracking has enabled important investigative reporting for years and climate change means that the overuse of private jets will remain highly newsworthy for the foreseeable future. No other country besides the U.S. similarly restricts access to flight data.
The good news is that, for now, the FAA’s anti-transparency measures are not terribly effective because flight trackers have options besides FAA data. Private jets can also be tracked through wireless signals they transmit (called ADS-B), which can be detected by widely available censors. Communities of hobbyists track and share this data. It’s relatively easy to find online and includes jet owners whose flight information the FAA has scrubbed.
That’s how the owner of the account Musk suspended managed to track his flights. Journalists have since further reported on Musk’s prolific private jet usage — but it’s far from the first time that flight tracking has enabled valuable journalism.
There are websites that allow the press (and anyone else) to track movements of dictators through flight data. Journalists tracked a jet linked to an Israeli “spyware tycoon” to investigate which authoritarian regimes he did business with. The Wall Street Journal recently investigated PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan’s alleged personal use of the tour’s plane. There are plenty of other examples involving important news stories, including the Jeffrey Epstein case. People might also want to know which “civilian flights” the government is protecting when it spends millions to shoot down unidentified objects.
The aviation industry and its lobbyists nonetheless continue urging legislators to crack down on access, by both maintaining and expanding current secrecy policies. The Trump administration tried cutting off FAA data to sites that also use ADS-B signals, but some sites responded by opting to exclusively use ADS-B data. Other efforts have also failed to effectively conceal private flights information.
But governments will keep trying — both here and abroad. Saudi Arabia recently called for (PDF) international efforts to block flight tracking via ADS-B data.
Industry groups have argued that the government should protect the privacy of data it collects on private jet flights like it protects medical and tax information. But people need to see doctors and pay taxes. Private jets are optional. The press is entitled to investigate, for example, how much private jet owners pollute the air the rest of us breathe and whether executives of companies Americans work for and invest in divert corporate funds for personal travel.
It’s time for Congress to put an end to the taxpayer-funded secrecy program at home and ensure that the U.S. opposes any international efforts to help billionaires cover their tracks.