Tracking corporate jet movements [WSJ]

Rohit Khare (
Thu, 29 Oct 1998 12:53:23 -0800

[I wish I could fork the astoundingly hilarious "my first gulfstream" spread
by Anonymous in the October Vanity Fair. Quite a first-person fleecing
treat... RK]

Using Government Data, Web Sites
Track Highflying Execs in Their Jets


October 29, 1998

The Coca-Cola Co. Gulfstream V jet, a sleek craft with room for at least a
dozen executives, takes off from an airport outside Atlanta, bound for
Newport News, Va. Once on the ground, it rests for mere moments; then it
heads back to Georgia.

The purpose of the trip? Coca-Cola won't say. A spokesman does say that the
company's "very strong preference" is that the information remain private.

Too late. The secret comings and goings of corporate America have been
brought to light. Thanks to the unanticipated blending of government data
and the Internet, just about anybody can now, for a fee, track the flight
patterns and movements of the nation's 10,000 company planes, including
jets, turboprops and any other craft that submit a flight plan.

Shame and Danger

Corporate America isn't pleased. Companies are alarmed that their private
peregrinations are on public display, and wary that the information is being
used by traders hungry for an inside tip on who is talking to whom or,
worse, by terrorists looking to make a statement. It also can be just plain
embarrassing: No company, after all, wants shareholders to know that its
multimillion-dollar aircraft is headed to, say, a tony enclave on New York's
Long Island for the weekend, as a Time Warner Inc. jet recently was. "I
don't know of any Fortune 500 companies located out in the Hamptons," jokes
Patrick McGurn, a program director at Institutional Shareholder Services, a
Bethesda, Md., firm that advises investors on proxy issues. (A Time Warner
spokesman wouldn't comment.)

Perks like corporate jets have long gotten under Mr. McGurn's skin; during
the Super Bowl and other marquee events, he used to send a crew out to the
host-city airport to copy tail numbers off planes to see which executives
were flying in for the big game on the company dime. Now, he says, this
"handy" new Internet tool lets him do the same thing electronically.

Not just him, but anyone subscribing to the services of online vendors such
as and Dimensions International. It's easy: Log into the site,
enter a plane's tail number, and within moments, the screen lists the
plane's location, where it is headed next, when it is due to land. Or enter
an airport code, and up pops a chart that lists planes recently arrived and
due in soon, with details on the departure city, estimated time of arrival,
and flight altitude. Tail numbers can be cross-referenced with owners over
at, a Web site that stores aircraft-registration files in free,
easy-to-search databases.

Traffic at Teterboro

Here's what turned up on a recent afternoon at New Jersey's
Teterboro airport, a busy field outside New York City: At 1:40 p.m., Cummins
Engine Co.'s Hawker 800 jet landed, after a 2 1/2-hour flight from Columbus,
Ind. Six minutes later, a Falcon 50 owned by Anschutz Corp. -- whose
principal, billionaire Philip Anschutz, owns several Major League Soccer
teams, among other things -- touched down after a one-hour flight from
Martha's Vineyard, Mass. (Mr. Anschutz didn't return a call seeking

Resources --

Dimensions International -- --

Thirty miles to the west and 4,800 feet up, an Oklahoma pharmaceutical
company's Gulfstream was heading in. And waiting on the tarmac in
Connecticut was a jet registered to International Family Entertainment Inc.,
the television company founded by evangelist Pat Robertson and acquired last
year by News Corp., ready to take off for Teterboro at 3 p.m. sharp.

"It doesn't take a genius to figure out how to use this," says Frank Johns,
managing director of Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services in Arlington,
Va., which is now warning corporate clients that the flight data are out
there. Among Mr. Johns's countermeasures: schedule dummy flights, or charter
third-party jets.

The data have been available since 1996, but weren't distributed widely on
the Internet until last year. Ironically, trade groups representing
corporate-jet makers and users pushed the Federal Aviation Administration to
release the data so that members could track their planes in bad weather and
for other purposes. "It's an incredible tool," says Philip Bissonnette at
JetCorp, which services airplanes at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport outside
St. Louis.

Information for All

Half a dozen companies, with names such as Flyte Comm and SkySource, sell
the data strictly within the aviation community. But the Internet broadened
the audience when several online vendors began transmitting the data to
subscribers. "This information is in the public domain," says Mike Wilson,
sales director at, an Englewood, Colo., business-travel
operation that has almost 400 subscribers paying at least $100 a month each
for tracking data. Mr. Wilson acknowledges the concerns of
corporate-aviation groups "as a scenario," but says no substantive abuses
have ever come to light.

As a precaution, the FAA says, it can keep tabs on high-tech snoops, since
it receives an annual list of vendor subscribers. "We know where the
information is going," says Jack Kies, manager of the agency's
air-traffic-control command center.

Still, in the right hands, the data are a potential gold mine. One Long
Beach, Calif., aviation-service company monitors landings at competing
airports -- and then cold-calls the pilots to pitch its facilities. A
flight-support firm in Anchorage, Alaska, uses the data to watch jets
crossing the Pacific -- as a means of touting its refueling and other

Intriguing Arrivals

And then there's aspiring Internet sleuth Noah Marks, an associate at a
Seattle software firm who recently used the data to check on flights into
Seattle's Boeing Field, a popular corporate airport only 25 miles from
Microsoft Corp.'s Redmond headquarters. Recently, in addition to several
charter planes (whose passengers can't be traced), Mr. Marks spotted a jet
from General Electric Co. and one from Raytheon Co. "That's got to be
connected to Boeing, or maybe a software company," he suggests.

This kind of information, he says, is simply juicier than much of what else
he sees on the Internet. "You can learn so much about companies this way,"
he says. "It's almost an invasion of privacy."

Most companies feel the same way -- though they are reluctant to say so.
Microsoft, which a spokeswoman says doesn't own any corporate aircraft,
declined to comment on the prospect of companies visiting Redmond under

"Nobody likes the idea of people watching their airplanes," says Jack
Olcott, president of the National Business Aviation Association, one of the
trade groups that lobbied the FAA to make the data public. He says members
"don't want to draw attention to this, either."

Part of their hesitancy could be in reaction to just how pervasive -- and
expensive -- company jets have become. Business aviation has hit a high
lately. Companies spent about $4.46 billion on corporate jets in 1997, 50%
more than a year earlier. And these jets aren't cheap to operate: An average
six-hour round-trip flight aboard a $28 million Gulfstream IV turbojet costs
about $18,000, counting crew salaries, insurance, hangar fees and

Trade groups and the FAA have persuaded all the data vendors, including, to block the tail numbers of companies that want to remain
anonymous. So far, about 125 companies have requested such -- covering only
300 of the 10,000 corporate aircraft in the U.S.

That means it's mostly open skies for now, which rankles executives who
cherish secrecy. The whole point of corporate jets, after all, is to "feel
like you're off the radar," says portfolio manager Doug White, who recently
flew aboard his company's jet from Minneapolis to Boston. He declines to say