Pilot Counsel

The new rule on aircraft registration

September 1, 2010

John YodiceHere is a new wide-ranging FAA rule that will significantly affect all United States “N”-registered civil aircraft—essentially all of general aviation in this country. It becomes effective next month, on October 1, 2010. We have periodically reviewed the requirement that “no person may operate a civil aircraft unless it has within it…an effective U.S. registration certificate issued to its owner [or “pink copy” temporary authorization, or if it is a validly registered foreign aircraft] (see “ Pilot Counsel: Logging Pilot-In-Command Time,” March 2006 AOPA Pilot). We have also warned that it is a federal crime to operate an improperly registered aircraft if it is done “knowingly and willfully” (see “ Pilot Counsel: Aircraft Registration,” March 2005 AOPA Pilot).

Meeting the legal requirements will now become more difficult because of this new rule. We have become used to aircraft registration certificates that have no specific duration, certificates that are safely tucked up somewhere on display in the aircraft, mostly escaping particular notice. These registration certificates remained valid indefinitely, or until an aircraft was sold, destroyed, or scrapped, or the owner died, or in the unusual event that the certificate was suspended or revoked by the FAA or voluntarily surrendered by the owner. Since the 1980s we have had a related rule that “technically” required an owner to certify to the FAA every three years that a registered aircraft continues to be eligible for registration. But the way the rule worked, the burden on owners was minimized.

First, the FAA culled the aircraft registration list, eliminating aircraft that had any registration activity in the past three years. Those owners received nothing from the FAA. Then, to the remainder of the list, the FAA sent out a preaddressed postcard identifying the aircraft and owner, on which the owner of the aircraft could certify that the aircraft continues to be eligible for registration—essentially that the owner continues to be a citizen or legal resident of the United States and that the aircraft is not registered anywhere else (slightly more complicated for corporations that are not U.S. citizens). The instructions on the form stated that a return was unnecessary if no change had occurred. The procedure was simple and not too burdensome. The registration certificate remained safely on display aboard the aircraft evidencing to any interested party its valid registration.

That has now all changed. The new rule establishes a system for a three-year recurrent expiration and renewal cycle. All aircraft currently registered with the FAA will have their registration certificates (that do not have expiration dates stamped on them) terminated, and the aircraft will require re-registration in order that they be legally operated as a U.S. civil aircraft. All new and renewed registration certificates will contain a three-year expiration date printed on the certificate. The expiration date will follow the FAA’s “calendar year” concept, so it will be three years from the last day of the month in which registration or re-registration occurred.

The re-registration process for currently registered aircraft will be staggered depending on the month that the registration was issued. Over the next three years this rule will terminate the registration of all aircraft currently validly registered. In this staggered system, some registrations will expire as early as March 31, 2011, only six months away. For example, a currently valid registration certificate that was issued in March of any year (of course, it will not have an expiration date printed on it) will now have an assigned expiration date of March 31, 2011. One issued in April of any year will now have an assigned expiration date of June 30, 2011. Issued in May, expires September 30, 2011; issued in June, expires December 31, 2011; issued in July, expires March 31, 2012; issued in August, expires June 30, 2012, and so forth until a registration certificate issued in February of any year will expire on December 31, 2013.

The FAA plans to send out reminders for re-registration to the owners of the registered aircraft at the address of record at FAA. The reminders will be sent out well in advance. The FAA advises that re-registration and renewal can be accomplished online at the registry website, as long as no changes are necessary; otherwise, paper forms are required. The current fee for each aircraft for re-registration and renewal is $5, but higher fees ($45 and $130) are proposed in the House of Representatives-passed FAA Reauthorization bill working its way through the legislative process. We will have to wait and see.

The important message here for owners of U.S.-registered aircraft is to check the owner’s name and address on the registration certificate in the aircraft, or online at the FAA’s Civil Aircraft Registry. Then owners can notify the FAA of any corrections to be assured of receiving the appropriate reminders. Remember that an improperly registered aircraft may not be flown legally, and operating such an aircraft could be a crime.

Learn more

AOPA’s legal counselor John S. Yodice will present two forums at Aviation Summit. He will present “FAR Refresher” on Thursday, November 11 and “What Every Pilot Should Know About FAA Enforcement” on Friday, November 12. See the website for more information.