John S. Yodice is AOPA's legal counsel.
Proper registration of your aircraft is the law, and we pilots and aircraft owners need to know more about it. In the past, inadvertent technical violations of the aircraft registration law were handled more gently. Now we have been put on notice that that's changing — all a part of the continuing aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Right now we don't know all of the ramifications of the change, but we do know that the law will be more strictly enforced. We need to be more diligent to assure that the aircraft we fly are properly registered.
The law, with which we are all generally familiar, is that an aircraft may not be operated unless it is properly registered (which is not a simple concept), and the registration certificate (or other authorizing documentation) is on board the aircraft while it is being operated. The specific wording of the applicable regulation, FAR 91.203(a)(2), provides that "no person may operate a civil aircraft unless it has within it...an effective U.S. registration certificate issued to its owner or, for [a pending application for registration] operation within the United States, the second duplicate copy (pink) of the Aircraft Registration Application as provided for in Section 47.31(b), or [for foreign aircraft] a registration certificate issued under the laws of a foreign country." In addition to this regulatory requirement, and what is not commonly understood, is that operating an improperly registered aircraft is also a federal crime if it is done "knowingly and willfully." (See " Pilot Counsel: Aircraft Registration," March 2005 Pilot.)
The regulations also provide that a registration certificate has no specified duration. It is valid until suspended or revoked by the FAA or until the aircraft is sold, destroyed, or scrapped. The certificate holder also may voluntarily cancel it. If the certificate holder dies, the certificate is still effective for 30 days after the date of death.
What is troubling is that except for the drug smuggling cases, virtually all of the violations we have seen have been technical, inadvertent, and eventually cured. For example, we have sometimes seen the operation of an aircraft with a registration certificate in the name of a former owner, sometimes for years. Eventually, the aircraft have become properly registered without a problem. A related typical inadvertent violation has been the failure to return the original registration certificate to the FAA once the aircraft has been sold or the ownership transferred. Current regulations require that when an aircraft is sold, the seller must notify the FAA of the sale and the certificate of registration must be returned to the FAA. Another violation that we see, though sometimes it is not inadvertent, is the operation of an aircraft outside the United States on the pink copy of the application for registration (which is good temporary authorization, but only for operation within the United States). Another one to watch out for is a U.S. registration that does not meet the U.S. citizenship requirement for registration. There are more. FAR 47.41(a) enumerates the circumstances under which a certificate of registration becomes ineffective. These types of violations will now be treated more seriously.
Effective last month the FAA, in concert with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), announced it will "revitalize and refocus its airspace monitoring capabilities" to ensure that only properly registered aircraft operate in the airspace over the United States. Clearly, the FAA intends to prevent improperly registered aircraft from flying. How this will be implemented remains to be seen. The announcement also says that with respect to registrations that are noted in the FAA records as "in question" (a procedure that the FAA started a few years ago) notifications are going out to operators of aircraft that these aircraft "may be denied access" to the National Airspace System. In addition to denial of access to the airspace, individual enforcement actions also will be used. The FAA/TSA notification says that notices of deficiency will be mailed and that "a pilot deviation will be filed on the operator" whether or not he or she is the owner of the aircraft. All of which tells us that it is now more important than ever for us to assure that the aircraft we fly are properly registered.
There is another often-inadvertently violated regulation that needs to be noted. FAR 47.45 requires that the holder of an aircraft registration certificate notify the FAA of a change of address within 30 days. If the FAA is notified of a change of address, a new certificate of registration will be issued, without charge. Failure to notify of a change of address within that time doesn't make the registration ineffective, but it does cause other problems and it is a regulatory violation. Fortunately, many of the old addresses are updated through the aircraft registration report that is sent to the owners of record of aircraft that have not had registry activity within the past three years.
Don't get caught unaware. The mere fact that the aircraft contains within it a registration certificate that appears valid doesn't necessarily mean that it is. For example, it should be a red flag if the name that appears on the registration certificate is not the name of the current owner. If you have doubt, check. There is an easy way, though not foolproof, to help determine if an aircraft is properly registered or if the registration is "in question." The FAA aircraft registry may be searched and updated electronically. Visit the Web site for more information.