Adobe Stock montage: John A. Manfredo
Adobe Stock montage: John A. Manfredo

Slow Times at the Aircraft Registry

Processing the paperwork that allows you to operate an aircraft can now take six months. Here’s why—and what changes are coming.

Before you can fly an aircraft, it must be registered somewhere. Here in the U.S., aircraft are registered with the FAA’s Civil Aviation Registry in Oklahoma City, the national aviation equivalent of a local registry of deeds for real estate. At the closing of a business jet purchase, a bill of sale, an Aircraft Registration Application (AC Form 8050-1), and usually various other documents are filed with the registry, which then reviews the filings and, if all is well, records or accepts the documents and issues an official “hard card” registration certificate for the aircraft. 

It used to take the examiners at the registry six to eight weeks to review the filings; meanwhile, the buyer could fly the aircraft within the U.S. for up to 90 days by placing a copy of the signed AC Form 8050-1 on board as evidence of temporary authority to operate the aircraft while the application is being processed.

The problem is that, according to Scott McCreary, Aviation Group leader at the law firm of McAfee & Taft in Oklahoma City, the registry is now taking about six months to review a filing and issue a hard card (or a denial). This suggests that it could use more staff. Though the registry recently hired six additional examiners, however, the FAA seems more focused on giving it extra time to accomplish tasks than on completing them expeditiously. 

Though it fell behind in processing registrations during the COVID pandemic, the registry has routinely granted applications to extend temporary registrations (and thus the authority to fly under the signed AC Form 8050-1)—assuming you remember to apply for them. But that’s just another application for the backlogged registry to review and process, so in mid-2022, the FAA announced that it would be issuing “preemptive extensions” of temporary registrations if it failed to process them within 90 days, which saves the registry from having to review applications for extensions. 

A Solution from the FAA

Most recently, the FAA has solved this problem by allowing the temporary authority to operate under the AC Form 8050-1 to continue if the registry has neither issued a hard-card certificate nor (based on its review) denied the application. Thus, the registry now needs to do nothing until it does something, though it’s worth noting that FAA regulations provide that the maximum temporary authority to operate under an AC Form 8050-1 is limited to one year. After that, your aircraft will be grounded.

But even these extensions don’t solve all registration timing issues. Since the AC Form 8050-1 permits flights only within the U.S., if you want to fly elsewhere, you need the registry to expedite your registration by reviewing and recording the filed documents and issuing a “fly wire” (followed by a hard-card registration) showing that your aircraft is actually registered, not just that you filed an AC Form 8050-1 and have temporary operating authority. To do this, you must submit a Declaration of International Operations requesting the registry to expedite the registration for a specified international flight. But not surprisingly, the registry is behind in processing Declarations as well. According to attorney McCreary, it now routinely takes three (and occasionally up to six) days to get a flight wire that the registry used to issue the same or the next business day. 

Most people don’t board an aircraft for an international flight that soon after they purchase it, but jet buyers aware of the lengthy registration process these days might be tempted to jump-start their registrations by filing a Declaration of International Operations for a made-up trip when they buy the aircraft. The risk of making up a trip isn’t worth it, however. As the FAA’s Declaration form warns, federal law protects the registry from wasting time processing registrations for bogus flights by imposing serious penalties (fines or imprisonment of up to five years, or both) for making materially “false, fictitious, or fraudulent” statements on a Declaration. Further, as part of the changes implemented under the FAA’s Civil Aviation Registry Electronic Services (CARES) project, the FAA has indicated that it may follow up to confirm that a requested international flight was actually conducted.

Once you do get your hard-card registration, it won’t last forever. For a long time now, registration certificates have been good for three years, after which the registry would need to process a new one. But effective Jan. 23, 2023, the FAA has extended the life of a registration certificate to seven years, which should just about cut renewal applications in half. The FAA noted that this represents a cost-saving to aircraft owners. It also represents time saved for the agency.

More Changes Are Coming

Other changes are looming at the registry as well. For some time, as part of the CARES project, the FAA has been developing a plan for aircraft to be registered directly on the web rather than by paper (or email) filings with the registry. Though traditional registrations remain available for a time at least, the registry already implemented the service for individual owners on Dec. 5, 2022, and will shortly extend it to corporations, trusts, and others. Authorized CARES users (buyers, sellers, attorneys, title company personnel, aircraft lending and leasing businesses, etc.) will be able to file by creating a CARES access account and user profile containing the required information, including personally identifiable or “PII” data.

You’ll then be able to register aircraft either completely electronically or by downloading, completing, and digitally signing a registration application. You’ll pay registration fees by credit card, and provision will be made for filing liens, security agreements, and other documents. If the aircraft is still owned seven years later, you’ll be able to renew the registration in a similar fashion. 

December is always a stressful time at the registry, as buyers and sellers are eager to get deals done before year-end. Bonus depreciation has greatly increased the number of last-minute deals in that month because it provides an incentive for buyers to take delivery at the end of the year, put the aircraft in service for a few business flights, and write off 100 percent of the purchase price that year (instead of the next year) for tax purposes. 

Naturally, the registry’s need for more time to get things done has only made matters worse, and new announcements at year-end didn’t help. In late 2022, the Department of Transportation published a final privacy impact statement regarding how the PII information will be treated, followed in mid-December by an announcement to public document room permittees that the registry was now restricting access to “ancillary documents” on file to federal employees and federal contractors. 

What “ancillary documents” consist of isn’t entirely clear, but the action makes it much harder, for example, to verify the accuracy of new filings by checking previously filed name change, merger, and trust documents, and the like and will require a detailed review of special requests for access (which should include a “written consent” from the aircraft’s “owner of record”) by the already overworked staff. As one commentator noted, the timing of this announcement could not have been worse. 

Things at the registry quiet down after New Year’s Day, but it is important to keep in mind that more time is now needed for it to accomplish many tasks. Allow extra time, for example, for the registry to approve trusts and other documents. Though CARES electronic filings may encourage otherwise, you should take special care to make sure registration application filings will qualify so that your aircraft isn’t grounded if the registry requires a new registration application after the expiration of the FAA’s 12-month period mentioned earlier. 

If you are operating under an AC Form 8050-1 and have a flight outside the U.S., allow as much extra time as you can (at least three business days) to obtain a flight wire. And if you want to change your tail number or put your existing aircraft’s tail number on a new airplane, you may need to allow a year for the process. These days, the registry may take six months to approve changing the tail number on the current aircraft, thus freeing up the old number; and, once the number is available, it may take another six months for you to receive permission to put it on the new aircraft. Fortunately, if the new aircraft is being deregistered from another jurisdiction and the desired U.S. tail number is available, you can make the change immediately upon registering the aircraft in the U.S.