March 30, 2020

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published its audit of the FAA Aircraft Registry, which maintains information on approximately 300,000 aircraft registered in the United States.

The GAO audit focused on preventing, detecting and responding to fraud and abuse risks in aircraft registrations. The agency issued 15 recommendations to the FAA to improve the integrity and security of that process, with its foremost concern that the current system does not require the FAA to reliably verify applicants’ identities or the ultimate end user of an N-registered aircraft.

“[The] FAA makes some use of registry information to detect risks of fraud and abuse, but the format of the data limits its usefulness,” the GAO stated. “Most data on individuals and entities with potentially significant responsibilities for aircraft ownership… are stored in files that cannot be readily analyzed due to system limitations.”

Many of the GAO recommendations stem from the outdated nature of the FAA’s current registry database, which hasn’t received a significant update in more than 20 years. “As FAA modernizes its information-technology systems, it has an opportunity to develop data analytics capabilities to detect indicators of fraud and abuse in the registry,” the report added.

Scott McCreary, aviation group leader for the law firm of McAfee & Taft, said the GAO findings aren’t surprising. “While it’s not yet known how or if the FAA will implement all of these recommendations, many of them align with the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 that requires the agency to upgrade its IT capabilities,” he said. “It’s beneficial for our industry that the registry contain reliable and accurate information about who is ultimately operating a business aircraft.”

However, implementation of the GAO recommendations could also raise concerns about maintaining operator privacy. “Such concerns aren’t specifically addressed in the recommendations,” McCreary said, “but it’s certainly incumbent upon our industry to work with the FAA to ensure matters of privacy are addressed and maintained as the agency moves toward a more modern technological infrastructure.”

The GAO audit was the second of two recent investigations into the FAA registry process, with a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General’s office published last year.