Spotlight revealed FAA’s failures. Here’s how to eliminate them.

A plane flown by a pilot who stole the identity of another FAA-certified pilot crashed in a field in Denmark in 2012.
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office / The Danish Accident Investigation Board
A plane flown by a pilot who stole the identity of another FAA-certified pilot crashed in a field in Denmark in 2012.

Despite stringent US air security measures adopted after the 9/11 terror attacks, glaring gaps remain for commercial jets because of lax oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration. These shortcomings — which the agency has been frustratingly slow to address — give bureaucratic cover to drug cartels and suspected terrorists who want to hide their identities, and they block efforts to bring known criminals to justice.

A Globe Spotlight Team investigation found that the FAA’s air registry is woefully outdated and offers fertile ground for abuse. Thousands of planes routinely get coveted US registration numbers — marked by the letter “N” on the tail fin — for a paltry fee of $5 and equally paltry scrutiny. Spotlight reporters found that one out of every six business and commercial jets is registered through a tangled and largely ungoverned network of trusts, Delaware corporations, post office boxes, or companies operated out of private homes. The team’s investigation is the result of the first-ever fellowship created by Participant Media, producers of the Academy Award-winning “Spotlight” movie, and its partners.

Dummy registrations can mask planes used by drug traffickers. Records are so out of date that the FAA appeared to be unaware that a private jet in its registry was shot down by the Venezuelan Air Force in 2015 off Aruba, killing three people and leaving more than a ton of cocaine in the water. The plane was obtained by Colombian drug lords, according to federal prosecutors, but the tail number was linked to Dinama Aircorp Inc., registered in Delaware, according to FAA records. Yet more than a year after the plane was downed off Aruba, the FAA misguidedly sent a registration renewal notice to Dinama.


Remedies come hard, however, and require Congress to fulfill an essential promise of vigilance made to the public after 9/11. One good place to start: Insist that the FAA rouse itself from its torpor and move quickly to comply with legislation passed 13 years ago, requiring photos of pilots on licenses.

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A bill filed in July by US Representative Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, could bring some measure of transparency to all of this murk by simply requiring that the real owners of US-registered planes be publicly disclosed. “The FAA has basically abdicated [its] responsibilities,” Lynch told the Globe. “We have all these aircraft being operated by who knows who and for what purpose.” Congress should pass it.

Although the Trump Administration has proposed restructuring the FAA — along with privatizing the corps of air traffic controllers — there is a more urgent task at hand. The agency should close loopholes that make it vulnerable to manipulation and fraud. Public safety demands no less.