““When I made the film The Invention of Lying, they gave me a private jet for getting back and forth between New York and London. I thought, ‘I will never use it’ but I ended up using it every weekend. You turn up, right, and the airport is completely empty. I mean, there’s just someone at the desk and then the pilot, who says, ‘Are you ready to go?’ and you say, ‘Don’t you want to see my passport?’ and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I suppose I’d better.’” ”
When searching for a specific aircraft tail number, it's easy to conclude that all the good ones are taken. The folks who operate the FAA registry in Oklahoma City, however, think they've found a way to make many of these "unavailable" registration numbers magically accessible to the rest of us.
Why does someone want a particular registration number? It may represent a wedding date or birthday or carry some other sentimental association. Or it might incorporate a company's initials. The registration numbers of Corning Glass airplanes, for example, end in "CG." Nervous fliers and gamblers sometimes want their "lucky" numbers on the tail. Whatever the reason, aircraft buyers can be disappointed when the number they have in mind is already assigned to another aircraft.
A recent story illustrates the problem. A business jet buyer decided he wanted a specific tail number we'll call N123XX. A search on the FAA registry produced this dire-sounding warning: "This aircraft's registration status may not be suitable for operation." Further investigation revealed that N123XX had been assigned for use on a single-engine airplane, the registration status of which the FAA described as "in question." It was right about that. After weeks of investigation, phone calls and Internet searches, my firm determined that, unbeknownst to the FAA, the same aircraft had two registration numbers. Someone we'll call "Mr. A" had built the aircraft from a kit and registered it under N123XX, listing himself as the manufacturer. Mr. A had then sold the aircraft to Mr. B, who did more work on it-and then registered it under a different number, claiming himself as the manufacturer. Meanwhile, Mr. A had passed away and attempts to reach his spouse or executor had failed. When we finally tracked down Mr. B, it became clear that he wasn't going to be of much help, either. This left N123XX in a sort of tail-number limbo that even the FAA couldn't penetrate.
How many tail numbers reside in the twilight zone? The FAA estimates that nearly one-third of the approximately 350,000 civil aircraft on the U.S. registry are no longer eligible for registration. Registration conundrums include bad addresses, revoked certificates, destroyed or nonexistent airplanes and airplanes purchased where incomplete or inadequate documentation was filed-or where no documentation was filed at all. If all those "unavailable" N-numbers suddenly became usable, you might be able to get a number like N7UP or N711 for your aircraft.
The FAA has an answer: it issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would require every U.S.-registered civil aircraft to be re-registered. When the phantom aircraft holding N123XX, for example, fails to comply with the re-registration requirement, its registration would be canceled, and N123XX would once more become available. Over three years, all aircraft owners would be assigned a three-month period to file new registration paperwork. Thereafter, owners would be required to re-register their aircraft as frequently as every three years.
This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. First, the FAA's estimate of the number of questionable registrations shows that the agency is basically aware of many problem cases. So why not pursue those cases instead of making all 239,000 aircraft estimated to be in compliance re-register? If re-registration wasn't a headache, this might not be so bad. But many-maybe even most-aircraft owners won't understand what's going on and will seek advice from aviation counsel and others about what to do, when to do it and how to do it right. For example, if the owner of each of the aircraft in compliance uses one hour of legal services per airplane at $400 per hour, that's a total expense for the aviation community of almost $100 million. Add to that filing fees and other ancillary expenses, and you have a task soaking up a huge amount of man-hours and money.
Suppose, moreover, that you fail to submit the re-registration paperwork to the FAA within the specified three-month period. Under the proposed rules, you can't re-register early (i.e., before the three-month period the FAA assigns to you), and unless you deliver properly completed paperwork at least 45 days before the period ends, the FAA will cancel your registration-even if the failure to re-register is because the FAA was too busy to get it done. If your registration is canceled, the aircraft will be grounded and its registration number will be revoked and not available for reassignment to it. The cost to obtain, paint on and re-conform your aircraft for a new registration number is significant. Meanwhile, your unregistered aircraft may put you in default under your loan or lease agreements and void your insurance. The scariest thing is that you may be flying around for a while before you are informed-if you ever are-about the cancellation of your registration or the invalidity of your insurance.
Finally, even if all owners get their paperwork in on time, there remains a legitimate concern about whether the FAA registry has the manpower and resources to process all that paperwork without slowing the handling of normal registrations and title transfers. Since the FAA registry will have to deal with approximately 260 re-registrations per working day in addition to its normal workload, one thing is certain: implementation of re-registration will guarantee plenty of jobs at the FAA registry for the foreseeable future.
When re-registration was originally proposed, the FAA received more than 100 negative comments. The National Business Aviation Association and other industry representatives have since been trying to work with the FAA regarding the re-registration proposal. One hopes that reason will prevail.