|With records in disarray, the FAA is worried criminals could buy planes without the government's knowledge [Getty]
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is missing key information on who owns one-third of the 357,000 private and commercial aircraft in the US, a gap the agency says could be exploited by terrorists and drug traffickers.
The records are in such disarray that the FAA says it is worried that criminals could buy planes without the government's knowledge, or use the registration numbers of other aircraft to evade new computer systems designed to track suspicious flights.
Next year the FAA will begin canceling the registration certificates of all 357,000 aircraft and require owners to register anew, the Associated Press news agency cited them as saying on Friday.
About 119,000 of the aircraft on the US registry have "questionable registration'' because of missing forms, invalid addresses, unreported sales or other paperwork problems, according to the FAA.
In many cases, the FAA cannot say who owns a plane or even whether it is still flying or is no longer functional.
"We have identified some potential risk areas, but I think we're trying to eliminate as much risk as possible through the re-registration process,'' Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, said.
There have already been cases of criminals using US registration numbers to disguise their airplanes, AP was told.
Federal law requires all US aircraft owners to register their planes with the FAA and carry the registration certificate on board.
But the amount of missing or invalid paperwork has been building for decades, the FAA says. Up to now, owners had to register their planes only once, at the time of purchase.
The FAA sent out notices every three years asking owners to update their contact information if needed, but there was no punishment for not doing so.
The US registry now includes 16,000 aircraft that were sold but never updated with the names of the new owners.
And more than 14,000 aircraft that have had their registrations revoked but may still be flying because the FAA has not cancelled their N-numbers, which identify all US-registered planes.
As a result, there is a "large pool'' of N-numbers "that can facilitate drug, terrorist or other illegal activities,'' the FAA warned in a 2007 report.
To update the FAA registry, the agency will cancel all aircraft registrations over the next three years. Owners will then have three months to re-register.
In addition, the FAA will do away with its one-time registration certificate in favor new registrations that will need to be replaced every three years.
A pilot who fails to re-register will lose his certificate, and his plane must be grounded.
"We're trying to model it more closely on some of the programmes that are in effect for automobiles,'' Brown said.
"With the more regular renewal process, you will capture bad data much more frequently.''