Plane's whereabouts to be unavailable for real-time public tracking
October 25, 2013 12:05 AM
A Bombardier BD-700-1A10 Global Express.
By Bill Toland / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UPMC has a new, $50 million corporate jet. But you won't be able to track its movements -- at least not in real time.
That's because UPMC, like thousands of other private plane owners and lessors in Pittsburgh and across the country, has elected to keep its flight records obscured from public view, meaning the jet's whereabouts can't be tracked in real time via typical Internet channels.
"Always been done, for all the reasons" that are customary for big companies -- security, privacy, and to protect the health system's own business interests, UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said.
UPMC's new Bombardier Global Express -- a luxury, ultra long-range business jet with twin Rolls Royce engines -- was assembled last year and was certified to fly in spring 2013. The new plane replaces UPMC's 2002-model Global Express, which UPMC has been using since 2007. That plane, in turn, replaced UPMC's old Bombardier Challenger.
UPMC did not divulge the cost of the plane, but several aviation websites put the estimated cost of a new Bombardier Global Express at $51 million. Leasing a plane of that value, plus fuel and maintenance, would typically cost millions a year.
"The old plane had to be upgraded to meet a variety of safety requirements and regulations. It was easier [and] less expensive to lease a new plane than upgrade the old one. It's the exact same jet that has the exact same annual operating costs as before," Mr. Wood said.
But those who want to follow the jet's flight path around the world will have a difficult time doing so, despite a two-year push to open that sort of data into wider view.
The Obama administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, starting in 2011, sought to tighten access to what was then known as the Block Aircraft Registration Request program, which allowed plane owners to evade those who would follow departures and arrivals via third-party flight-tracking websites.
The new rule required plane owners to show a "valid security concern" -- such as "verifiable threat to person, property or company, including a threat of death, kidnapping or serious bodily harm against an individual" -- in order to block would-be trackers. (Flight plans for private planes, as well as commercial craft, can still be requested from the FAA via a Freedom of Information Act request, so comings and goings can be pieced together weeks or months after the fact.)
The purpose of the rule-tightening was to provide greater transparency into flight data, according to the FAA. At the time the new standard was to go into effect, in summer 2011, about 7,400 of the nation's 357,000 registered airplanes were on the do-not-track list, according to the New York Times.
Why should flight plan data be easily accessible to the public? Because, according to transparency advocates, the use of national airspace relies on a system of air traffic controllers, airports and runways that are largely financed by taxpayers.
"The airways and the air traffic control system is a public commons," said Chuck Collins, scholar at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies. "We have to balance private needs and the public interest."
But that view, and the new standard, were opposed by the business aviation community and overruled by Congress by the end of 2011. As a result, the "new" FAA policy, which was formally ratified in September of this year, greatly resembles the one that had been in place since 2000: Dissemination of flight data can again be blocked for any reason at the request of the plane owner.
All manner of plane owners, particularly for-profit corporations (UPMC is a nonprofit) block their tail numbers from public, real-time tracking. Of the 529 private aircraft registered in Allegheny County and others based in suburban counties, dozens have blocked tail numbers.
As for UPMC's new jet, according the FAA's flight registry, the UPMC Global Express is officially owned by a "Wilmington Trust Co. Trustee," whose business address is "UPMC, U.S. Steel Building, 62nd Floor."
Wilmington Trust is a bank and safe-deposit company based in Delaware. The 62nd floor of the U.S. Steel building is where UPMC's International and Commercial Services Division is housed; that floor is also home to the office of UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff.
Mr. Wood said the jet is needed for "medical, international and business development purposes. The positive cash flow from UPMC's international operations more than pays for the lease on the jet." UPMC has operations in Italy, Ireland and the U.K. and is moving into Asia.
Many companies of UPMC's size -- $10.2 billion in revenues last fiscal year -- own or exclusively lease their own private jets, but most nonprofits and most hospital systems do not.
"Our expectation is that nonprofits should adhere to higher standards of conduct," said Deborah L. Rhode, a law professor at Stanford Law School who has researched the subject of ethics within the nonprofit world.
Highmark Inc., UPMC's top rival locally, leases air time though Corporate Air, a charter company based at Allegheny County Airport. It has one airplane that is reserved, but that plane is also available for use by other passengers.
If the plane is in use and Highmark executives need to fly on short notice, the company can use another plane from Corporate Air's 18-plane fleet.
Highmark's primary plane, and many of the others operated by Corporate Air, do not have "blocked" tail numbers -- though some of the fleet, particularly the larger Gulfstream planes that fly out of Pittsburgh International Airport, do have blocked numbers.
Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.
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