At this very moment, there thousands of aircraft in the skies above the United States — but a shocking investigative report has revealed that over 1,000 aircraft may be unaccountable and linked to a registration scheme that is raising security concerns.
Journalists from WFAA-TV in Texas are blowing the whistle after they noticed a strange trend. There are at least 1,000 aircraft registered in the small town of Onalaska, Texas … yet bizarrely, that sleepy town doesn’t even have an airport.
“That’s equivalent to one plane for every three Onalaska residents, which is more per capita than anywhere else in the country,” the news station discovered. “Just as surprising, the aircraft are registered to only two Onalaska P.O. boxes. That’s because the aircraft owners do not live there. Not even close.”
What is happening appears to be a scheme that might be technically legal, but is pushing into a grey area.
“Onalaska is ground zero for a practice that allows foreigners to anonymously register their planes, and one that critics say makes the United States an easy target for drug dealers, terrorists and other criminals seeking to register their planes,” the WFAA report found.
Aircraft, like cars and trucks, must be registered with the government in order to operate. You may have noticed “N-numbers” on the tails of planes. Each of those registration numbers is unique, and can be checked in the FAA database to see who owns and operates the craft.
But a surprising number of aircraft N-numbers aren’t actually registered to the individuals who fly them. Instead, the ownership is obfuscated through corporations and trusts — and some of them are based outside of the United States.
“When you can conceal the true ownership of a plane, you’re putting a lot of people in jeopardy,” former FAA Special Agent Joe Gutheinz told WFAA-TV. “If you’re a terrorist and you have a way of concealing your secret ownership of a plane in the United States, you’re going to do it.”
In theory, trust companies are supposed to conduct “due diligence” when a foreign person uses this structure to register an aircraft. But some officials are raising red flags and alleging that very few checks are actually happening.
“If you are a foreign national … you can register an aircraft here and the government doesn’t know anything about it. Come on. It’s laughable,” said Congressman Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from Massachusetts who chairs the House National Security Subcommittee.
“We shouldn’t require less information to … to register a car than to register an aircraft,” he commented.
It would be one thing if the concern over registration schemes, like the one based in Onalaska, was just conjecture with no evidence of a real problem. But even the U.S. government has admitted that this apparent “loophole” is being exploited in questionable ways.
“Registry records on an estimated 5,600 aircraft owned under trusts for non-U.S. citizens lacked important information, such as the identity of the trustors,” a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Transportation found in 2014.
When the DOT randomly selected 77 of those foreign-owned aircraft to dig into the problem, they discovered that “the trustees were unable to provide this information for 35 of the 47 owners, or 74 percent.”
And there have been real cases where that became a national security problem. In one case cited by the DOT in their report, a U.S. bank helped a Lebanese politician register his aircraft in the United States. It turned out that the aircraft’s operator was connected to a known terrorist organization.
In another case, a large Boeing 737 registered in the U.S. was found to be linked to a Middle Eastern leasing company in the United Arab Emirates. “The trustor was unable to provide the inspector with any information about who was flying the aircraft,” the government report stated.
And the sleepy town of Onalaska, Texas, with 1,000 registered aircraft but no airport? The trust company based there is also linked to some eye-opening activities.
“Two of the planes registered to the trust company were named during a federal investigation of a massive drug-smuggling operation, according to federal court records,” WFAA-TV found.
One of those aircraft “had been registered in a trust in 2012 on behalf of a Mexican company,” the investigative report continued.
“The company’s legal representative, Fausto Velez Urbina, was convicted in 2005 on federal cocaine trafficking charges and deported back to Mexico in 2010. Urbina purchased the plane from an aircraft broker named Mauricio DeLeon for $1.69 million.” That individual, in turn, has been connected to known cartel members.
Congressman Lynch is fed up. “Just tell us who owns these aircraft,” he said to WFAA-TV. “They could easily be turned into weapons. Anybody around 9/11 understands that painfully.”
Where is the line between letting foreigners do business inside the United States and making sure that strategies like these aren’t used for criminal purposes? That’s a tough question, but one that needs to be answered soon.