Monday, April 12, 2010

University of Alabama Tries to Keep Information About Plane Usage Under Wraps

The University of Alabama is among numerous entities that in recent years have taken advantage of a little-known program that allows private plane owners to block their flights from view in the government's system for tracking air traffic.

Booster and athletics programs at the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi are among the groups who have used the program, according to a report at ProPublica, a public-interest journalism Web site.

The story, the result of a 15-month battle over public records, ties in with our reporting here at Legal Schnauzer. We have written extensively about Paul W. Bryant Jr., a member of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees and the school's best-known sports booster. Bryant, the son of the late Hall of Fame coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, reportedly has allowed his private plane to be used for university business. One of his companies, Alabama Reassurance, was implicated in a massive insurance-fraud scheme in the late 1990s in Pennsylvania.

How does an institution or business manage to keep its plane usage secret? ProPublica reports:

The owners don’t have to meet any test to keep their flights secret. They merely submit a request to the National Business Aviation Association, a trade group that lobbied to set up the program on the grounds that secrecy is justified to protect business deals and the security of executives.

Why the need for secrecy about flights? In the case of universities, ProPublica reports that they wanted to shield information about coaching searches and recruiting visits. Motives vary from organization to organization:

In at least some cases, the program has . . . served as a refuge for plane owners who’ve faced bad publicity, according to a review by ProPublica of 1,100 blocked planes in the program. The list was obtained after a 15-month public records battle in which the business aviation group sued the FAA to keep it confidential.

After a federal judge ruled that the records are public, the FAA provided the list this week.

It includes aircraft registered to Fortune 500 companies such as 3M and Tyson Foods, private real estate developers, government agencies and evangelical churches. There are 62 Gulfstream IVs and Vs, which cost tens of millions of dollars each, 36 Learjets and two Boeing 737s.

Flight data generally has been seen as public information. But modern high fliers don't see it that way:

Use of the national airspace is generally considered public information because pilots--whether airline captains or recreational fliers--rely on a system of air traffic controllers, radars, runways and taxiways, lighting systems and towers that are all paid for or subsidized by taxpayers.

As a result, flight data collected by the FAA in its air traffic control system-- except for military and sensitive government flights--is public information. Web sites such as FlightAware post the data online, allowing anyone to observe the system and follow most planes virtually in real time.

Chuck Collins, who has studied the costs of private jet travel for the progressive Institute for Policy Studies , said the public has a right to monitor such flights because taxpayers and commercial passengers heavily support business aviation.

Paul Bryant Jr. has a history of trying to hide his unsavory activities from the public. Our guess is that he is very much involved in the University of Alabama's efforts to keep its flight activities secret.


Robby Scott Hill said...

And what about UAB President Carol Garrison who was on the receiving end of some of some unnecessary airplane trips paid for by Tennessee taxpayers? :)

Robby Scott Hill said...

Perhaps they need to become a private institution like Faulkner University, my alma mater, so they don't have to answer to taxpayers and can conduct covert missions to Eastern Europe to "preach the Gospel" to some Communists who don't know Jesus. They'll be able to pay for the cost of operating the aircraft by smuggling Russian Vodka, Soviet Champagne and Caviar back to the US :)