Senator calls for hearings on plane registry
NEW YORK -- The chairman of the Senate subcommittee overseeing aviation said Friday he would recommend holding congressional hearings on aircraft registration after The Associated Press reported the Federal Aviation Administration was missing data on one-third of U.S. planes.
"We need to find out why, and how it can be brought back to have a registry that has credibility," said North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat.
The FAA says as many as 119,000 of the 357,000 U.S.-registered aircraft have "questionable registration" due to missing paperwork, invalid addresses and other paperwork problems.
In reports in 2007 and 2008, the agency warned that the probblem was causing loopholes that terrorists, drug traffickers and other criminals might exploit. It was concerned that a criminal might use a U.S. registration, known as an N-number, to slip by computer systems designed to track suspicious flights.
"It is advantageous to a drug trafficker or a terrorist to use an airplane with a registered N-number as these airplanes would be subject to less scrutiny," the FAA wrote in a 2008 explanation of the registry problem.
On Friday the FAA said it was taking "proactive steps" to clean up the database by requiring all aircraft owners to re-register their planes over the next three years.
"The agency is moving to a mandatory re-registration system like the ones most states use to register automobiles, so we have more current and complete registration information in our database," the agency said.
Dorgan's counterpart in the House of Representatives, Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., said Friday the FAA needs to improve its recordkeeping but stopped short of calling for hearings.
"Given the security issues at stake, revising and modernizing the registration process is necessary," Costello said in a written statement. "The FAA needs to ensure the re-registration process runs as smoothly as possible and that the maintenance of records is improved, and I believe the FAA is proceeding accordingly."
Both congressmen will soon be stepping down from their leadership roles in the aviation committees. Dorgan is retiring in January, and Senate leaders have not yet chosen a new committee chair.
Costello, a Democrat, will lose the post when Republicans take control of the House in January. His likely replacement, Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., was unavailable for comment on Friday, a spokeswoman said.
Until now, aircraft owners were only required to register once, when they purchased an aircraft. Errors accumulated over decades as new purchasers forgot to register, owners died, invalid addresses went uncorrected and junked aircraft went unreported, the FAA says.
In addition to law enforcement purposes, the FAA said it uses the database to contact owners about safety problems and locate planes that go missing.
Pilot groups said the outdated registry was not a security risk, noting the United States has other safeguards against terrorism.
The Transportation Security Administration does background checks on student pilots from other countries, air traffic controllers watch for suspicious flights, and the Department of Homeland Security has launched new computer systems to screen aircraft arriving from other countries.