Tracking private jets just got much harder

It's a major privacy win for the nation's wealthiest air travelers.
Andrew Paul Avatar
Private jet on tarmac at sunset
Four hours on a private jet creates more CO2 than many people do in an entire year. Deposit Photos

The latest Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill contains a pointed amendment within it—the government is making it much more difficult to monitor and track private aircraft travel. The new law passed last week will almost exclusively benefit the nation’s wealthiest flyers and obscure public attempts to hold them accountable for their disproportionate carbon emissions.

As The War Zone explains in its initial coverage, there are already multiple options for companies and individuals to help conceal their private aircraft travel and usage. The FAA’s Limited Aircraft Data Displayed (LADD) program allows plane owners to request the administration tell third-party flight tracker services to withhold information like call signs and flight numbers. Meanwhile, its Privacy International Civil Aviation Organization (PIA) can also block some flight information from being broadcast across unencrypted aircraft transponders.

Still, it has remained relatively easy for knowledgable actors to track private planes, since their owners were required to register their information through the FAA’s civil registry. The new law, however, will soon allow private jet owners to censor all the above identifiable information—and more—by simply “attest[ing] to a safety or security need” through a forthcoming application program.

[Related: Boeing FAA audit uncovers dozens of issues.]

People often track the flights of high-profile public figures like Taylor Swift and Elon Musk to highlight the dramatically exponential amount of carbon emissions generated by the world’s wealthiest people. Swift, for example, traveled 178,000 miles in 2023 while emitting an estimated 1,200 tons of CO2—83 times that of the average American. Musk flew a total of around 8,600 miles in that same timespan. Private air travel only makes up four percent of global aviation carbon emissions but the richest flyers create around 90 percent of that pollution. Just four hours on a private jet emits as much greenhouse gas as a single European citizen does over an entire year. 

Both Swift and Musk eventually issued legal threats to the main person who helped popularize their travel habits, a University of Florida undergraduate named Jack Sweeney, although he continues to track them and others.

“Let this be said that this doesn’t prevent us from tracking jets,” Sweeney posted to X shortly after the new law’s passage. “We can still figure out who’s who via context clues.”

Sweeney took to social media again last night to reiterate that the new privacy laws “did not make it impossible” to continue keeping tabs on private plane travel and its environmental impact.

“Quite possibly it makes me want to push even harder on tracking,” he said.