The Associated Press reported December 10th that the Federal Government’s trouble with keeping track of paperwork has led them to uncertainty as to the owners of about a third of all private and commercial airplanes currently in service. The FAA’s response to this problem is to cancel registration certificates over a three year period, requiring all airplane owners to start the registration process from the beginning.
All planes are required to have their registration or “N” numbers visible on the tail or fuselage, but the FAA fears the current state of their records could be exploited by criminals, terrorists, and drug traffickers. They also say better record-keeping in the future will make it easier to alert plane owners of new safety information, like airworthiness directives.
The FAA blames the state of their current database partially on plane owners who have scrapped their planes without notifying them. Legally, owners of aircraft are required to notify the FAA when they sell or junk planes, or when the owner changes addresses. Many of the current inaccuracies on record are possibly due to simple ignorance of the law.
Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, says the majority of the planes are probably where they are supposed to be, and the FAA has simply lost track of them through paperwork, the database not being updated, or the owners not responding to the survey the FAA sends out every three years. “So they’re probably where they are supposed to be — owned by the people the FAA last has record of. They just don’t know that.”
Michael Boyd, president of BoydGroup International Aviation Consulting, told APM that a clearer picture of how many airplanes are registered will give the FAA the data they need to plan out airway infrastructure — how many runways are needed, what kind of staffing is necessary, and so on. Boyd says that when you “lose track of 119,000 airplanes,” planning appropriately can be difficult.
The FAA believes wiping the registry and starting over will aid law enforcement agencies and combat the threat of terrorism.
Last year in California, pilot Pierre Redmond had his Cirrus plane searched by Customs and Border Protection agents in fatigues and bulletproof vests after his N-number had been confused with a wanted plane in Florida. In another incident last August, the Santa Barbara Police Department detained flight instructors John and Martha King at gunpoint, after federal authorities mistook their Cessna for a plane that was stolen in 2002.
Both incidents were reportedly caused by inaccuracies within the FAA registry and/or law enforcement databases.
Bob Strang, retired FBI agent and former co-chair of the New York 9/11 Anti-Terror Task Force, says “We need to be able to immediately identify the owner of any plane by it’s tail number. Police officers can I.D. vehicles from their tags within seconds… it’s insane we can’t do it with planes.”
The re-registration could be expensive and a considerable hassle for big lenders who need to ensure all their planes remain registered. Banks’ claims to aircraft are often tied to FAA registration, so lenders will have to prepare for hundreds of aircraft re-regsistrations.
David Warner, general counsel for the National Aircraft Finance Association, says the FAA is exaggerating the terrorism angle. “The threat of people wanting to do us harm is very real, but the focus on re-registration or stale registration data on aircraft is not where the risk is likely to be,” he says. He also points out that drug runners use cars to smuggle drugs into the country every day of the week, and the ownership records on cars — the ones the FAA says they are trying to model new registrations after — have nothing to do with whether the cars are going to be used for smuggling or not.
In 2008, plane owner Steve Lathrop of Washington received a call that his plane was in the hands of Venezuelan authorities with over 1,500 pounds of cocaine on board. However, his plane was locked in its assigned hangar in Ellensburg, Washington. The smugglers had apparently chosen his N-number because the plane models were similar.
“Anybody with a roll of duct tape can put any number they want on an airplane,” Lathrop said.
Others have noted that most of the FAA’s paperwork problems lie with smaller planes that pose little terrorist threat.
Like it or not, the FAA is going through with their plan. Following the initial cancellations, every registered aircraft in the FAA’s database will now be required to be re-registered every three years. They will cancel the N-numbers of all aircraft whose owners do not follow the new procedures. According to FAA regulations, an aircraft with cancelled registration is no longer airworthy and cannot be flown legally.
Military aircraft will not be included in the registration cancellations.