The feud between the Elon Musk and the student Jack Sweeney, has received a lot of publicity. Sweeney runs various @elonjet social media accounts, that report on the flights and locations of Elon Musk’s Gulfstream jet. Sweeney also tracks other celebrity aircraft. So, what are the options for Elon Musk or anyone else who doesn’t want to be tracked while flying in a private jet?

Aircraft Tracking Background

All aircraft flights are tracked and need to be tracked to ensure flights are safe and efficient. At a fundamental level, the tracking allows Air Traffic Control (ATC) to see and manage the flights, allows other aircraft to see each other, and allows ground crews to prepare for arrivals and departures ensuring the safe and smooth operation of the whole air transport industry.

Jack Sweeney uses data from Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which is the latest tracking technology platform. The FAA required ADS-B be used in all aircraft operating over the U.S.A. as of Jan. 1, 2020.

There are many other companies and organizations that are tracking aircraft and provide tracking services. Companies like FlightAware provide both public services and premium subscriptions, although they will block aircraft from the public feed if requested. For instance, if you search on the tail number of Elon Musks Gulfstream N628TS, FlightAware says “This aircraft (N628TS) is not available for public tracking per request from the owner/operator.” Radarbox and Planefinder provide similar tracking services. These services also track commercial flights and let the public see if flights are on time to track their own flights or the flights of friends, family and acquaintences.

Other research and data companies also provide private jet tracking services. For instance, information on the movements of corporate jets is highly valued by hedge funds and investment managers, who are looking at “alternative” data sources, to provide early signals on large corporate deals, mergers and acquisitions.

Preventing Aircraft Tracking

The FAA says it “acknowledges the desire of some operators to limit the availability of real-time ADS-B position and identification information for a specific aircraft.” To address privacy concerns, the FAA has initiated the Privacy ICAO aircraft address (PIA) program. Under this program aircraft owners can request an alternate, temporary ICAO aircraft address which won’t be shown in the publicly available Civil Aviation Registry.

The FAA also has the Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed (LADD) program, which limits the distribution of flight data for participating aircraft owners, for instance owners can choose to make it available only for FAA use.

But the above tools aren’t foolproof and a determined tracker can still figure out private aircraft activity. 

Alternative Options

So, if you really don’t want to have your travel tracked, but still want to have the benefits of private aircraft, what can you do?

Well you could follow the trail of the world’s richest man Bernard Arnault, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of LVMH Moët Hennessy, the world's largest luxury goods company. He recently sold his private jet, an ultra-long range Bombardier Global 7500, largely driven by privacy concerns. Instead, he is now chartering private aircraft.

This is certainly a smart move if you don’t want people to know about your private flight activity. Flying on a plane that is owned by a third party, means that the name of that third party is on all the registration documents, and is the owner name tracked with the flights.

There are several alternatives to fully owning a private plane, including:

Fractional Ownership: Companies such as NetJets, Flexjet, PlaneSense and Airshare offer fractional aircraft ownership and also offer leases in private planes. There are a wide variety of aircraft to choose from, to suit a variety of requirements and mission types, all the way from turboprops to ultra-long range jets like the Global 7500. As an owner, you own a share of a plane, typically starting at 1/16 ownership, equivalent to about 50 hours of flying per year. The operator, management company eg NetJets, Flexjet etc has their name in the aircraft registry and flight tracking would show, for instance, a NetJets flight, with no possible identification of who is on board.

Even if the multiple owners of an aircraft were listed, no flight tracker would know which owner was on board for any given flight. Furthermore, the way these large fleets work is that an owner may never fly on their own plane, but could fly on any similar plane in the fleet and, the operators are renowned for their discrete service levels and privacy protocols.

Aircraft Charter: You could follow Bernard Arnault and simply charter aircraft, potentially using a different aircraft for every flight. Charter providers may own their fleets, and/or may manage fleets for others and/or may use aircraft belonging to third parties. You can charter an aircraft directly from an operator or work with a charter broker to find the ideal aircraft for each mission. There are thousands of aircraft available for charter and it’s the aircraft owners name that is tracked in the aircraft registries and will be associated with any flight. Anyone tracking a charter flight will not know who is on board.

Jet Cards & Memberships: Jet cards and jet membership provide the same sort of privacy as aircraft charter. The economics of cards and memberships work differently to charter, with cards offering fixed hourly rates, as opposed to the market driven variable rates of charter. The holders of jet cards and jet memberships cannot be identified by looking at aircraft flight tracking data.