Lax policies at the FAA should frankly terrify you

This weekend the Boston Globe published a two part investigative report on the FAA which everyone really needs to take a look at. I realize most of you have probably had your fill of bad news for one year by now, but they’ve uncovered some procedural problems at the FAA which leave us exposed to needless potential danger from terrorism, not to mention gaping loopholes which make it hard to combat everything from drug trafficking to illegal immigration.

You can read the first part here and the second part, published a day later, is found here. There’s far too much to cover in one column, but just to offer a sense of how serious the issues they’ve uncovered are we’ll highlight a few of the big ticket items. First of all, are you under the impression that you can trace the owner of any given airplane registered with the FAA? If a plane is involved in a crash, found to be smuggling drugs or illegal immigrants or simply not showing up on anyone’s list of assets, that should be easy to figure out. But it turns out that it’s not and there are literally tens of thousands of planes registered with the FAA which have the name of no actual human being attached to them, or when they do, the people named as owners are frequently fictional.

Today, thousands of planes are registered using practices that can allow for anonymity of ownership. A Spotlight review shows that one out of every six aircraft is registered through trusts, Delaware corporations, or using post office box addresses, techniques commonly used to make it hard to discern the true owner. The number is likely even higher because the FAA acknowledged that it does not verify the validity of documents filed for the registry’s more than 300,000 planes.

There are 314529 aircaft with N-numbers in the FAA’s registry.

54232 of those aircraft are registered using known secrecy tactics.

7610 are registered to companies known for providing trust services to non-U.S. citizens.

Guess how much it costs to register a plane with the FAA. It’s five bucks, the same as it was in 1964. The amount of information they collect in the registration process is scant and they don’t have the resources to vet the registrations most of the time. Three planes that were caught smuggling drugs in 2013 were legally registered with the FAA. The problem was that the owner was actually a Mexican citizen who listed his address as that of a strip mall in Texas near the border. He just said he was a citizen on his form and the registrations went through. There are hundreds of planes out there registered to a single office, house or (in some cases) vacant lot.

Here’s another item to make sure you don’t sleep as well tonight. I’m guessing that, like me, most of you assumed that the process for getting a pilot’s license was pretty secure and those credentials are tightly controlled, right? It may come as a surprise to learn that a pilot’s license doesn’t even have their picture on it.

Check out this brief story of Nader Ali Sabouri Haghighi, a person who should never have gotten within a country mile of having a pilot’s license, but who was able to get a new one from the helpful folks at the FAA with almost no effort at all.

Nader Ali Sabouri Haghighi’s own pilot certificate, it turned out, had been revoked years earlier for providing false information, but the Federal Aviation Administration conveniently mailed him a new one. Haghighi had called the FAA hot line claiming to be a professional pilot named Daniel George who had lost his license. He then recited George’s license number and other personal details that he’d obtained from their business dealings. Without asking further questions, the FAA agent sent Haghighi a license with George’s name on it.

It ought to have been difficult for the black-haired, brown-eyed Iranian to use a pilot’s license belonging to a fair-skinned, gray-haired American nearly 20 years his senior, except for one factor: FAA pilot licenses do not include photographs of the pilot. Haghighi was able to pull off his ruse for nearly four years until Danish police found the license in the rubble of the crash.

Last year, one congressional overseer of the FAA described the system of issuing US pilot licenses “a joke,” claiming that getting a day pass to Disney World was harder and the resulting document had more security protections on it than a license from the FAA.

There’s far too much more in that two part report to go into it all here. I strongly suggest you read through the rest for yourself. More than a decade and a half after people managed to steal a pack of planes and pull of the 9/11 attacks, our security in the skies is still woefully inadequate.