Government to Industry: Let Us Pay You for Government Data

Sometimes the information economy ushers in fantastic opportunities for government to more with less. Efficiencies derived through smart use of IT practices, crowdsourcing, transparency and social media are areas that have ‘injected’ dynamism into government operations. Unfortunately, the opposite holds true: sometimes the information economy ushers in stupid opportunities for private parties to take advantage of government.

Exhibit A is the Department of Homeland Security’s recent solicitation for Airline Industry Flight Data. Seems odd, given that the FAA, which oversees air travel in the US, um, has this information*. But not completely– all aircraft have to file a flight plan with the FAA before take off, and this is public. However, for a variety of reasons, the plan filed may not be the actual route flown.

This RFP seeks information that is known by a small group of companies active in the airline ticketing and scheduling industry. GDS acts as a sort of back office for airline ticketing (the history of the GDS alone is a fascinating one, but that for another time), and schedule aggregators (like Innovata) work with IATA to provide schedule data in a standardized format. Getting to the details, the solicitation seeks detailed information relating to US originating or terminating flights in the industry-standard SSIM format. Specifically, it seeks:

  • Airline names
  • Flight numbers
  • Itinerary variation
  • Identifiers
  • Leg sequence numbers
  • Service types
  • Departure/arrival stations
  • Discontinued dates
  • and more! (consult the solicitation if you dare: Scope of Work, Page 2)

Additionally, “…[t]he flight data file shall not contain the following Data Element Identifier (DEI) Type 4 line items:

a. 501 – On-Time Performance
b. 502 – In-Flight service (meals for sale, movies, smoking, non-smoking, etc)
c. 503 – Electronic Ticketing Information”

Seems odd to specifically identify three attributes that you do not want. What is weird about this solicitation (apart from the FAA already having this data) is that DHS already has it– under the Secure Flight program, the TSA collects traveller information from airlines. This includes a unique ID (PNR) that can be used to associate with the aircraft, and therefore capture info the TSA seeks!

*Ok, we lied. The FAA actually doesn’t have this data. Of course you would think they create this data, but they don’t–it’s licensed from a private party, giving more opportunities to license public resources to additional government agencies, like DHS!