Operators give the DGAC an 'F' on aircraft registration reform

 - August 11, 2008, 6:46 AM

The prospect of mandatory French registration for all aircraft based in France appears to be fading following a recent census of foreign-registered aircraft conducted
by the country’s civil aviation authority (DGAC). Officials experienced difficulties gathering information for the census and were able to get firm data on only about
100 aircraft.

The DGAC has said it wants to understand why owners of aircraft based in France chose not to hold an F-registration. Eventually, the authority might question and reshape current registration rules.

EBAA France, the French chapter of the European Business Aviation Association, has indicated that the initiative could bring positive results in terms of more user-friendly registration requirements. However, the shifting European regulatory environment, and most notably the creation of the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA), is complicating the issue of national registrations.

An internal DGAC memo announcing the planned census on February 13 first raised the prospect of changes to registration rules. “To improve monitoring of foreign aircraft based [in France], the DGAC is considering making French registration of these aircraft mandatory when they stay more than 183 days in France,” the memo said.

Today, French owners can have their aircraft registered in any country (although restrictions exist for operators flying under for-hire JAR OPS 1 rules). The country of registration is responsible for the aircraft’s airworthiness, but France can enforce its own operational rules. For example, an ELT is required on board French-based aircraft.

Room To Interpret

Nonetheless, according to Alain Vella, the chief of the technical regulation office at DGAC’s training and technical monitoring division, “There is room for interpretation between operations and airworthiness.” And in any case, the DGAC can always ground an aircraft if it believes it is insufficiently maintained.

According to EBAA France president Olivier de l’Estoile, there are two motives for French owners to register an aircraft abroad: lower taxes and greater privacy. Should F-registration become mandatory, it would be a hurdle for many operators. On the other hand, “as we are talking to the DGAC, there is an opportunity to improve the current situation,” de l’Estoile insisted.

“We wanted to trigger some reactions,” Vella told AIN when asked why the DGAC had initiated the census. But he acknowledged that it had been a mistake to say specifically the DGAC is considering mandatory French registration and to mention specifically the 183-day limit at this point.

“We think the proportion of French owners choosing to register their aircraft abroad is growing,” Vella said. Consequently, the DGAC has tried to evaluate the number of aircraft by type of operation. “We want to understand,” he noted, adding that the DGAC is aware that “a few things on [the agency’s] side are not as they should be.” For example, he admitted that DGAC staff could do more to ease the paperwork burden required for an F-registration.

According to Vella, the DGAC’s main worry is that “we are not sure the countries of registration monitor their aircraft here.” He suggested that some foreign authorities are negligent in their enforcement of airworthiness and maintenance standards for aircraft based outside their territory.

“French civil aviation authorities make every effort to guarantee other countries that F-registered aircraft based [in those countries] are regularly checked,” insisted Vella. And he admitted that the DGAC does sometimes discover negligence among foreign-based owners of F-registered aircraft.

Vella maintained that some countries do pose a real safety problem, recalling a recent series of surveys by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These surveys proved that some countries are inefficient in aviation safety monitoring of home-based aircraft. By implication, Vella suggested, these countries are even less competent at checking aircraft registered with them but based in other nations, and some of these countries have aircraft based in France.

“French law applies to aircraft flying domestically, according to the Chicago Convention,” he stressed. For example, the DGAC has found out that some French operators have ignored the requirement that their pilots should hold a French or French-validated license, even though they are flying a foreign-registered aircraft.

To date, the issue of aircraft registration and regulation has been essentially the same for states inside and outside the European Union. But starting September 28, when the EASA begins initial operations, it will become an issue between the EU and the rest of the world.

There is now pressure for European countries to harmonize their regulations. This will probably be done at the beginning of the transition period, which calls for the EASA to be 100-percent operational by March 2007.

A serious problem occurred with some Russian aerobatic training aircraft recently imported into France. “We discovered their Russian registration was military, not civil,” Vella explained. On this basis, their owners were given a temporary exemption but must have their aircraft registered in France. Otherwise, the aircraft will be grounded by next month, Vella warned.

Luxembourg-registered, French-based business aircraft are another matter of concern for the DGAC. Some are operated under fractional-ownership programs, which French legislation considers as public transport (JAR OPS 1, the equivalent of the FAR Part 135). However, Luxembourg allows fractional ownership to come under less stringent rules for Part 91-equivalent private/corporate operations.

Difficult Exercise

The census is now complete, but it proved to be a difficult exercise because DGAC could not get replies from all operators. Vella acknowledged that since the census is the first of its type, it is impossible to determine whether the 100 or so general aviation aircraft identified as being foreign registered is a fixed number or whether there is a trend upward or downward. The DGAC believes the combination of aerial work and corporate aviation (meaning non-JAR OPS 1) accounts for approximately 50 percent of foreign-registered aircraft in France.

On May 20, DGAC regional managers met in Paris to discuss their findings and the objectives for possible follow-up action. But the agency now wants to ask operators for their opinion before going public on what kind of action could be taken.

According to Vella, a straightforward method would be to have F-registration mandatory for all aircraft based in France. But it could soon be a redundant requirement, as future EASA regulations will likely make countries responsible for all aircraft based in their territory and owned by EU operators. “What we want is to have an authority on aircraft based in our country,” Vella emphasized.

Nonetheless, the DGAC now plans to negotiate with both the European Commission and operator associations, such as EBAA and AOPA. The framework of the negotiations is not yet defined, but they will endeavor to improve registration regulations.

“We would like to contribute to the new European regulations that are being written,” Vella explained. The foundation of EASA implies a harmonization of European countries’ registration rules. “Our contribution could avoid the new rule asking for too much paperwork,” he insisted. Vella stressed the basis for these harmonized rules should be that “when an aircraft is registered in a reliable (in the ICAO’s judgment) country, we should easily accept it under European registration.”

Until recently, Vella’s team intended to propose such a new aircraft registration formula to EASA by the end of the year. But the schedule has now slipped indefinitely as the EASA ground rules for this sort of proposal are still under construction.