Abuses in program that conceals flights

Michael Grabell

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Bob Moon: It seems there's a different kind of stealth flying that you may not be aware of. It's a program designed to conceal flight plans of private jets for a variety of security reasons. But the investigative journalism group ProPublica has turned up possible abuse, ranging from flights to politicians to Division-1 football coaches.

One of the authors of this report is here to tell us what he found -- and why it matters. Michael Grabell, good to have you with us.

Michael Grabell: Thank you for having me.

Moon: >Why does a program like this exist? What's it intended to protect?

Grabell: Well, it was created to protect the security of executives, to protect business deals that could be competitive in nature or might affect stock prices. For example, if a major company was going out to an area where they don't have business right now, somebody could look at that and speculate that they're about to buy another business. And with that in rumors, they could greatly affect stock prices.

Moon: >So what made you look into this program to begin with?

Grabell: I first heard about this program in November 2008, after the Big Three auto executives flew in their corporate jets and showed up in Congress and said, "Hey, we need some financial assistance from the taxpayers." After that story came out, there was a little note that GM had decided to go on and use this blocking program. So, GM gets embarrassed or criticized, and they can just say, "Hey, we want our flights blocked." And the FAA says, sure, no questions asked.

Moon: >And when you dug deeper, what did you find?

Grabell: There's all sorts of people on this list. Everyone from Fortune 500 companies to college sports programs that block their planes to prevent the public from seeing where they're going to recruit or to search for a new coach. But we also found a few examples where somebody had gone on the list after receiving a lot of public criticism over how they were using their planes.

One example of this was, the televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who has a big international ministry based outside of Forth Worth, Texas. He was the subject, with some others, of a congressional inquiry in 2007 from Sen. Grassley on the finance committee. The senator had some questions about the church's planes having stopped over in Maui and Honolulu and the Fiji Islands and some other places. And so it was interesting to see that among sort of the top users of this list was actually a tax-exempt church.

And another example that we found were public officials, governors in some states, had blocked their flights. As we all know, governors, all their travel is paid for taxpayers. And one governor in South Dakota, Gov. Mike Rounds, his plane travel was the subject of a three-part series in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that questioned his use of the state planes to go on personal business, to see his son's basketball games or to go on other family trips. There was a big controversy that came out of that. Into his reelection campaign, he decided to go ahead and block his planes.

Moon: >And why is that a problem? These are, after all, private flights.

Grabell: They are private flights, but they depend on a public aviation system and public air space that taxpayers pay for. The runways, the air traffic controllers, the radars, the lighting systems, taxi ways, towers -- all these things are paid for by all of us taxpayers. So, you know, it's interesting.

Moon: >Michael Grabell is a reporter for ProPublica. Thank you very much for joining us.

Grabell: Thank you very much.

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