Saturday, December 18, 2010

Re-Registration of All N-Registered Aircraft

In Canada when you buy or import an aircraft, or change any of the information (e.g. your name or address or the registration of the aircraft) you must obtain a certificate of registration for said aircraft. It's a piece of paper, about the size of a trade paperback, with another similar piece of paper stapled to it. The paper lists the basic information on the aircraft: make, model, registration, serial number, owner's name and address and commercial or private registration. The other piece of paper attached has the aircraft information and blanks for the name and address. If you sell the airplane or move, you fill in the new owner information on both pieces of paper, and send the main one into Transport. The secondary piece serves as a C of R until Transport sends you an amended one.

If you rent, borrow, ferry, or otherwise take command of an airplane, one of the things you do before flying is is check to ensure that the C of R and other key documents are on board and valid. Licence applicants are asked to list the required document and then asked questions like "when does this C of R expire?" They are expected to recognize that it's kind of a trick question, because it doesn't expire. A good answer would be, "It doesn't, but you need a new one if any of the information on it changes, or if this one becomes illegible." Most people keep their documents in a waterproof envelope, and it's pretty common to see a slightly dog-eared Canadian C of R that dates back to an aircraft import date in the 1970s.

I assume that the procedure is not completely different in the US. Except they're going to change it. It turns out that either Americans haven't been very good at sending in their aircraft registration cards, or that the FAA hasn't been very good at filing them and keeping their data entry up to date. Of the 357,000 private and commercial aircraft they do know about, they are aware of problems in the paperwork of 119,000, about a third.

This has come to light because, in pursuit of terrorists and drug runners, the US tracks the movement of aircraft based on their registration numbers. Not knowing who owns an airplane makes it less useful to track it. I guess you could say that right now the US tracks airplanes the way they track kids. You're expected to register them when you first get them, but they don't check back every year to make sure you still have that kid. The new system will make them more like automobiles, where you have to renew the registration every year. Canadians and Americans already do this every year with cars, with new licence plates or licence plate stickers (the Americans call them DEEcals), so it's not an alien concept, but I expect resistance.

Here's an anecdote from another news story, one I don't have a link to:

There have already been cases of criminals using U.S. registration numbers, also known as N-numbers or tail numbers, to disguise their airplanes. In 2008, Venezuela authorities seized a twin-engine plane with the registration number N395CA on the fuselage and more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine on board.

Soon afterward, airplane owner Steven Lathrop of Ellensburg, Wash., received a call from a reporter. "He sort of started the conversation with, 'Do you know where your airplane is? ... Your airplane's in a jungle in South America,'" Lathrop said.

Lathrop's Piper Cheyenne II XL was locked safely in its hangar at the Ellensburg airport. The smugglers had apparently chosen his tail number because the model was similar to their plane. "Anybody with a roll of duct tape can put any number they want on an airplane," Lathrop said.

The re-registration of hundreds of thousands of aircraft wouldn't eliminate that tactic. Just find an airplane that doesn't fly much, and that is similar to your stolen or re-marked airplane, and make your questionable flights under that registration. It would narrow the pool of suitable registrations, by removing thousands of derelict, abandoned or I've seen some US aircraft with registrations in tiny letters and numbers. Many do have large numbers. I suspect that specification of the required size of registration number included a clause that grandfathered existing ones until the aircraft were repainted, and some people never repaint their airplanes.

In Canada we send in an AAIR (Annual Airworthiness Information Report) on each registered aircraft, so if an airplane is sold, scrapped or disused, that information reaches Transport Canada through that channel. It's still possible, I suppose that Canadian records are in disarray, but they've always been okay for any aircraft I've been familiar with that I've looked up. If Canada instituted an annual aircraft registration scheme it would be awful: we would have to pay a fee and no matter how much they charged, the bureaucracy collecting the fee would cost more than it made, and they'd still screw up the database. Such confidence I have in government and in databases.

The FAA plans over the next few years to cancel the registration certificates of all 357,000 aircraft, and require owners to re-register. The first batch of notices have already been sent to aircraft owners. I expect American aircraft owners to be displeased.


GPS_Direct said...

"If Canada instituted an annual aircraft registration scheme it would be awful: we would have to pay a fee and no matter how much they charged, the bureaucracy collecting the fee would cost more than it made, and they'd still screw up the database."

I think you're giving the FAA and the U.S. government (little g) WAAAAAYYY too much credit. We'll go along (What choice do we have? Not fly?!?!), but you can rest assured this will turn into a goat rope.

Aviatrix said...

GPS Direct: I didn't say I expected the FAA to do a great job of it, I just commented on how the government I pay for would have done it, then left opinions on the US government's competency open for those who elect it.

Sarah said...

Meh. It's a 3-year renewal, and cheap. They just want a clean database, the better to keep an eye on us. If the US government is good at anything, it's good at collecting taxes and fees. I can't believe I just said that, but it's true. :)

If Canada instituted an annual aircraft registration scheme it would be awful: we would have to pay a fee...

You mean like these fees? I didn't see any examples; how much does this cost a typical GA aircraft? For now, anyway, ATC is "free" in the US, paid by general taxes.

I am displeased about the re-registration. Not over the $5 fee but the hassle. I'm unhappier about the FAA's proposal to require a $22/8-year renewal of pilot certificates. Apparently they want everyone's picture and DNA sample ( made up that last part. )

Aviatrix said...

Sarah: I was thinking of the $55 fee I pay to Transport Canada every time I renew my medical (over and above the fees that go to the doctor) and the $35 fee for the new sticker for my IFR renewal.

We already have passport-style pilot licences, and I think they didn't charge us for them the first time, to encourage people to get it done. I still had to pay for professional passport photographs, 'though.

Make sure you wear gloves and don't lick the envelope or stamp when you send in that licence re-application.

Sarah said...

Gloves? Naw, it's done on line. I'll wear my tin-foil hat while doing the renewal though.

You didn't really ask, but I'll tell you anyway. FAA has complicated rules about N-Number size on the airplane. The summary covering the aging GA fleet is..

On an aircraft displaying 2-inch marks before November 1, 1981, and on
aircraft manufactured between November 2, 1981, and January 1, 1983, you
may display those marks until the aircraft is repainted or the marks are
repainted, restored, or changed.

Gliders can get by with 2" marks - I guess to not spoil the aesthetics.

Grant said...

I can imagine many creative ways pilots might choose to donate DNA specimins - er, I mean samples...

If our Canadyun Guvmint could blow (was it a BILLION!?) big bucks registering long guns (in a nation of only 35 million!)... My mind boggles at what they might come up with for aircraft.

Are we all feeling safer yet?

Sean said...

Sarah has it right, it has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with grabbing more money. Nearly 99% of everything the US "big brother" does under the guise of terrorism is just a power/money grab.

The last 4-5 paragraphs of this article call that out.

Anonymous said...

It seems that the best way to get anything involving the US government done is to use either "drug trafficing" or "terrorism" in the justification - which I guess are the two current wards wihch are being fought.

Probably doesn't matter if you want to pave a road in Wyoming, register airplanes, dredge a river or fix a pier in some small town on the great lakes: Link it to terrorism and who could possibly vote no.

Remember to check for terrorists under your bed tonight before going to sleep (used to be communists, but things change over time).