Spotlight probe: Post-9/11, FAA continues lax oversight of airplane registration, licenses

A web of secrecy at the Federal Aviation Administration could make it nearly impossible to identify a plane’s real owner. For a new report, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team spent a year investigating a system the newspaper says can be exploited by drug dealers or corrupt international politicians.

What they found raises real questions about how the FAA handles information regarding airplanes and the people flying them.

Their story, “Secrets in the Sky,” published today by the Boston Globe, even notes people with links to terrorism who appeared to hold active FAA licenses to fly or repair planes.

One in six private aircraft in the United States (or 54,232 out of 314,529) are registered through means which, though legal, make it very hard — even for law enforcement — to determine who owns an airplane. 

A Boston Globe Spotlight investigation has found that U.S. registration of planes, or pilot and mechanic licenses, are easily obtainable by drug traffickers, people with ties to terrorism.

CBS News

It’s a system that’s appealing to bad actors, like the drug runners flying an American-registered plane shot down by the Venezuelan air force.

“People can use layers of secrecy to register their aircraft,” said Boston Globe reporter Jaimi Dowdell. “And those layers of secrecy are really attractive to drug dealers, criminals, corrupt politicians, and people with potential ties to terrorism.

“It helps them hide, conceal their activities, and when they register their airplane with the U.S. flag, it’s like getting the U.S. stamp of approval.”

Dowdell and Kelly Carr reported the story. They told CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave they found an antiquated system less secure than getting your driver’s’ license.

“You have to have a bill of sale, and the bill of sale simply says, ‘Kelly sold the plane to Jaimi.’ And then you have to fill out the form, and that’s about it,” said Dowdell.

“You go to the DMV, it’s like, [show a] birth certificate, a passport, a power bill?” said Van Cleave.

“Right,” Dowdell laughed. 

The Boston Globe found that the FAA still doesn’t put a photo of the pilot on airman’s licenses, 13 years after Congress called for it to do so.

CBS News

The cost of registering an airplane is just 5 dollars — a price the FAA says was mandated by Congress back in 1964.

“The FAA doesn’t see…

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