FAA FOIA requests

Camden Bruno

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #30 on: January 13, 2017, 02:38:08 pm »
My message to FAA HQ was that VATSIM and all of us are 100% non-commercial. That was on Jan. 4, and it was the first time I made contact with HQ.

I'll keep everyone posted when (if?) I hear back.

All,

We have not heard back from the FAA HQ. Therefore, earlier today, we opened a case with the office of a U.S. Senator, who serves on the U.S. Senate Transportation Committee. Please feel free to read the letter below. For full transparency, minor portions have been changed considering the full letter included personal details (i.e. where I reside). I have also redacted the name of the FOIA Manager we have attempted to coordinate with, as I know I would not want my name being thrown around on a public forum in a situation similar to this one.

Depending on how they proceed, we may ask for more people to contact their local Senators/Congressmen. For now, let's all stay patient, as it may be some time before we hear back from the Senator's office.

Appreciatively,

Cam Bruno

Quote
January 13, 2017

Senator:

My name is Camden; I am the volunteer Air Traffic Manager at Boston Virtual ARTCC, an organization that simulates online flying and air traffic control. Our organization, which is part of a global network called VATSIM, is a completely free online platform that allows virtual pilots, wherever they are in the world, to connect their flight simulators into one shared virtual environment. Everyone at VATSIM, including the controllers, pilots, Board of Governors, and Executive Committee, is a volunteer.

The purpose of our organization is to help student pilots practice, in a realistic, simulated environment, for the real flights they do as part of their training. We do this through a series of classroom-based, one-on-one, online, and practical training sessions, seminars, and exams. We also offer aviation enthusiasts the opportunity to participate in simulated flight.

You are likely aware that realistic, online aviation organizations like ours have been instrumental in the training of thousands of private and recreational pilots, myself included.

This Wall Street Journal article, from 2006, talks more about what VATSIM is, and how it benefits air traffic control students as well as pilots: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB114791326544456106.
The FAA itself has used VATSIM’s pilots and controllers as a testing ground for new procedures: https://www.mitre.org/publications/project-stories/vatsim-new-realities-in-virtual-rd.

I am writing to you today because the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization FOIA Program has blocked our efforts to promote aviation training and learning. I will need to provide a bit of background about what we do in order to explain how.

One element of our efforts is training virtual air traffic controllers to provide the same service that a pilot would expect if he or she was flying in the New England region. To do that, we have historically requested training materials, facility files, and air traffic control maps from the FAA through the Freedom of Information Act. We make these requests as individuals, not as VATSIM, because VATSIM is not a commercial or in fact even a legal entity. For many years, and up to as recently as December 12, the FAA has categorized these FOIA requests as “All Other Requestors” and applied the appropriate fee category.

However, in response to a FOIA request (#2017-001711) we submitted on November 30, the FAA stated: “It is the agency’s understanding that you are affiliated with the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation (VATSIM) Network and believes the records you have requested will be used by VATSIM  for a commercial purpose.  Therefore, you have been placed in the Commercial category of requesters.” It appears the FAA searched the names of the individuals who made FOIA requests, connected those individuals to VATSIM (a non-commercial entity), and somehow made the inaccurate determination that individual, personal FOIA requests were commercial.

The FAA has incorrectly identified individuals who request ATC files for use on VATSIM as commercial requestors. However, as I have mentioned, everyone at VATSIM is a volunteer. The network takes no money from its participants whatsoever, nor does the network receive any money from advertising or sponsorships. Each member of the VATSIM administration and staff, including myself, is a volunteer. This is made clear on the VATSIM website: https://www.vatsim.net/about.

The problem with incorrectly designating VATSIM as a commercial entity, and placing FOIA requests into the Commercial category, is that it forces the volunteers who donate their time to VATSIM to bear the burden of fees. For example, for one recent request, the FAA asked for $660 for a single set of air traffic control maps. That is an unreasonable expense for a volunteer individual to pay. We can share several other recent examples as well.

To resolve this matter and in an attempt to establish a constructive, working relationship with the FAA, we have reached out to the FAA on behalf of all of the individuals who made FOIA requests for ATC documentation that may be used on VATSIM.

Our request was directed to [redacted], Manager, Air Traffic Organization FOIA Program. We asked for an explanation as to why VATSIM was categorized as a commercial entity, given that it is run by volunteers, free to use, and receives no money from advertisers. He has declined to reply to that request, declined to explain why the FAA has made this categorization, and declined our efforts to initiate a positive, working relationship with the FAA. This is particularly strange because the work we do at VATSIM is so relevant to what the FAA does. In fact, several VATSIM simulator air traffic controllers were recently selected from a pool of applicants to become FAA air traffic controllers.

On request, I would be happy to provide a copy of my colleague’s correspondence with Mr. [redacted], including the two emails dating back to January 4 that he has declined to reply to.

The purpose of our FOIA requests is to improve the realism that we can provide by equipping our controllers with the same data files and documentation as FAA controllers. In doing so, the airspaces, vectors, and clearances we provide are as accurate as possible for pilots who may be using VATSIM, and our controllers, as a training tool.

By blocking these efforts, the FAA is reducing the effectiveness of online aviation as a training tool for pilots like myself. VATSIM does not have commercial, trade, or profit interests. Like Boston Virtual ARTCC, VATSIM is run by volunteers, and free to use.

As a real-world pilot and a volunteer simulated air traffic controller, I am requesting your assistance in:

(1) Asking [redacted], Manager, Air Traffic Organization FOIA Program, to reply to our emails and to begin a constructive discussion about how VATSIM, BVA, and the FAA can work together.

(2) Re-categorizing VATSIM in a FOIA category that recognizes VATSIM is a non-commercial entity, and in doing so, removes the burden of fee payment from VATSIM-affiliated FOIA requestors.

(3) Developing a constructive relationship between VATSIM and the FAA; there are several groups, like mine, that make FOIA requests. We would like to coordinate these efforts to streamline the workload for the FAA.

As I mentioned, I would be happy to share our correspondence with Mr. [redacted], evidence of other FOIA requests that have been designated as commercial, and any other information that might be helpful in addressing this issue.

Camden Bruno
Air Traffic Manager
Boston Virtual ARTCC

Josh Glottmann

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #31 on: January 13, 2017, 03:35:39 pm »
Thank you for your continued efforts to benefit the network and more specifically VATUSA, Camden!

Manuel Manigault

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #32 on: January 13, 2017, 05:39:32 pm »
Thank you for your continued efforts to benefit the network and more specifically VATUSA, Camden!

Agreed!
Mani Manigault
Air Traffic Director
VATUSA - Northeastern Region

Russell DeSpain

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #33 on: January 13, 2017, 06:50:08 pm »
Very nicely worded email, sir!
Russell DeSpain
ZID Facilities Engineer - C1
VATSIM P1 Pilot


Christopher Denton

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #34 on: January 13, 2017, 08:22:29 pm »
Well done Camden. Well explained and articulate. Thanks to you and ZBW for taking up the charge.
Christopher Denton
I1 |ZJX Facilities Engineer | ZJX Asst. Events Coordinator

Toby Rice

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #35 on: January 13, 2017, 11:05:10 pm »
Very good email, Camden.
Toby Rice
ATC Instructor (I1)
Jacksonville ARTCC
VATUSA ACE Team | CFI/CFII | Former HCF ATM
toby.rice@zjxartcc.org


Ryan Parry

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #36 on: January 14, 2017, 12:41:11 am »
Very well written email Camden. Great work, thank you for your efforts.
Ryan Parry - 965346
ZOA Air Traffic Manager

Rick Rump

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #37 on: January 14, 2017, 05:53:26 pm »
Hopefully the LA the letter has gones to actually puts it into the file to bring up with the Senator's CoS instead of formletter land.
Good luck Camden!

VATUSA Training Director
https://vatusa.net
vatusa 3 at vatusa dot net
Former ZDC ATM, DATM, TA & WM

Charles Messina

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #38 on: January 15, 2017, 10:05:13 pm »
Interesting related article:

https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/oip/legacy/2014/07/23/fees-feewaivers.pdf


It seems that applying for a fee waiver may be the appropriate course of action.  In the event that VATSIM is mis-classified as "commercial use,' then an appeal must be made for redesignation.  In the event that is unsuccessful, it is reviewable by a federal court on a de novo basis.  There is a the "exhaustion of administrative remedies" doctrine to be contended with which means someone eventually will have to pay a fee of some sort, which may or may not be refunded (the caselaw seems sketchy).  Failure to exhaust administrative remedies will be a fatal mistake.

If there is no satisfaction within a month or so from the legislative end with Camden's email, we should consider using one ARTCC as a test case for this method.  Once caselaw is established, the rest becomes academic.
« Last Edit: January 15, 2017, 10:25:43 pm by Charles Messina »
Charles Messina
Cleveland ARTCC-ATM

Cameron Bristol

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #39 on: March 07, 2017, 10:58:16 am »
What ever ended up happening here? Needing to submit for one of these myself.
Cameron Bristol
ZFW ARTCC Air Traffic Manager
zfw-atm@vatusa.net


Matthew Kosmoski

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #40 on: March 07, 2017, 11:41:19 am »
What ever ended up happening here? Needing to submit for one of these myself.

I was wondering the same myself.  I imagine (hope) that they're still fighting through the process... especially considering the amount of hurry-up-and-wait involved.
Matthew Kosmoski
Air Traffic Manager | ZHU ARTCC
mkosmoski@zhuartcc.org
www.zhuartcc.org

Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #41 on: March 07, 2017, 11:53:31 am »
Multiple paths, all stalled.  Although I just heard word this morning that one member in the USA just recently received FOIA information.  I just don't know if he paid commercial rates, or how he was charged.
Don Desfosse
Vice President, Membership, VATSIM
Division Director Emeritus, VATUSA

Krikor Hajian

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #42 on: March 07, 2017, 12:37:57 pm »
I requested Potoma TRACON SOP's, LOA's and RVM's in January. They charged me $52 for the lot. I did not state that I am using it for VATSIM purposes, so I am not sure if this means they are still researching members. I received the files over the weekend.


Krikor Hajian (HI) - 1283146
Deputy Air Traffic Manager | Instructor
krikorh@bvartcc.com
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VATUSA ACE Team Member | VATSIM Supervisor

Matthew Kosmoski

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #43 on: March 07, 2017, 05:30:28 pm »
Multiple paths, all stalled.  Although I just heard word this morning that one member in the USA just recently received FOIA information.  I just don't know if he paid commercial rates, or how he was charged.

Was the member ARTCC staff?  If not, perhaps their search doesn't pop the user in the top 3, easing the way.
Matthew Kosmoski
Air Traffic Manager | ZHU ARTCC
mkosmoski@zhuartcc.org
www.zhuartcc.org

Rick Rump

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Re: FAA FOIA requests
« Reply #44 on: March 08, 2017, 06:24:06 am »
It appears it is time to FOIA their rationale for why VATSIM is grouped in as commercial.

VATUSA Training Director
https://vatusa.net
vatusa 3 at vatusa dot net
Former ZDC ATM, DATM, TA & WM