Utah pilot Wendy Lessig was on an East Coast swing, flying her vintage Piper taildragger along the Long Island shoreline at 1,000 ft AGL when she gave Bridgeport (KBDR) Tower a call to ask for the okay to transition their Class D airspace. Approved, they said, and she continued flying along, enjoying the kind of easy sightseeing we all enjoy so much.
Then with no warning, a few weeks later a bill showed up in the mail for the flight, for departing from Bridgeport, which is a $7.00 fee. Nobody likes landing fees, or, in this case, takeoff fees, but $7.00 seems reasonable. There was only one problem. Lessig never landed at or took off from BDR.
Similar stories have been going around on online forums of late, and many of them involve questionable bills from one company, Vector Airport Systems, through its Vantage system.
Vector provides a variety of airport services that aren’t cost effective or that are too specialized for a small airport authority, like Bridgeport Sikorsky Memorial Airport, to do on its own. Santa Monica, KSMO, is a customer of Vector, as well, and pilots flying into and out of SMO get their bills from Vector, and most pay them without looking twice.
We wondered how Vector knows to bill planes for landing and other airport fees, so we did a little digging, and we weren’t surprised to see that the company is most likely using ADS-B data in part. As you surely know, ADS-B is an electronic form of surveillance that’s already replacing radar in many places across the National Airspace System. The equipment will be required in every GA plane flying in most controlled airspace in the United States. And while pilots are largely sold on its benefits, the two chief ones being, one, you’ll be able to see where other traffic is with great precision and, two, you get in-cockpit weather (FIS-B) through a data uplink associated with ADS-B.
But many pilots are concerned about the intrusion on our privacy ADS-B allows. An airplane’s ADS-B signature gives you the N-number, and from there it’s easy to find the owner without asking for anyone’s permission. The story that Lessig and others are telling seems to validate the concern that the new technology is intrusive.
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There’s a profit motive for companies to use ADS-B data, and that seems to be the case with Vector, which claims on its website to differentiate itself from the competition by being able to “detect and ID more aircraft than any other system available by using more technologies than any other system.” These include, says Vector, flight tracking radar, ground-based imagery and flight plan tracking data. [The emphasis is ours.]
So while Vector doesn’t say that it uses ADS-B, their mention of flight tracking radar and flight plan tracking data suggest that they might.
We reached out to Vector for comment, and company president Pete Coleton directly addressed the flight in question, writing that, "In the case of the fee charged to Wendy Lessig, it appears as though her flight pattern and profile was very similar to what an aircraft performing a touch & go operation would look like and this caused our system to produce a billable activity in error." Coleton continued that, "I understand she was able to contact our live PlanePass billing team and the error was quickly corrected. I already have my team looking into this case to identify a system refinement and plan to follow up with Wendy."
We reached out to the company again asking specifically if it in part tracks planes via ADS-B. On her flight, Lessig contacted Bridgeport Tower, so they had her plane’s N-number, but it’s unclear how that data would have been shared by BDR controllers with Vector Airport Systems. Raw primary radar returns wouldn’t have the N-number of a VFR aircraft unless it were an ADS-B target. Lessig’s PA-12 does indeed have ADS-B, she told Plane & Pilot.
Another pilot to whom we reached out said that AOPA had been made aware of the issue and their personnel are said to be contacting Vector for more information. We’ve reached out to AOPA personnel, but by press time, they had not returned our messages. For now we advise all pilots with or without ADS-B to take a careful look at any bill for landing fees to ensure that they actually landed there.
We will update the story as we get more information.