Isle of Man Registry still growing despite EU’s tax clamp-down on private owners

 - July 31, 2011, 10:10 AM

After four highly successful years Brian Johnson, the man behind the Isle of Man Aircraft Registry and the island’s first Director of Civil Aviation, leaves on August 26 to pursue a new challenge (the Swaziland registry, according to some reports).

Johnson will leave the Isle of Man registry with approximately 400 aircraft (the 391st, a G550, was registered in mid-July), while the demonstration fleet of “one of the main business jet manufacturers” (thought to be Dassault) is about to be registered there too. He believes that by the middle of next year, the registry could have more business aircraft than the UK CAA’s. The Isle of Man registry has already surpassed those of the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.

Johnson attributes much of the registry’s success to competitive rates, a convenient time zone and exemplary customer service, rather than tax benefits. There is also the incentive of the neutral M-registration (which can often form words such as ‘M-AGIC’). “The main reason for registering aircraft in the island is the personal support and efficient service owners receive from my team. It is not tax or financial,” Johnson told AIN.

UK VAT Challenges

Nevertheless, continued success will likely focus on corporate operators and airliners temporarily on the register (these are the only commercial aircraft that are allowed under the Registry’s agreement with the UK CAA), as new VAT rules introduced on January 1 this year include aircraft below 8,000 kg (17,636 pounds) for the first time, and tighten the restrictions on who can claim a zero-rating rather than 20 percent.

Most aircraft on the register are purchased through a Manx “Special Purpose Vehicle” (SPV), a company designed purely to hold and manage the asset. While corporate jet operators can enjoy zero corporation tax and can be VAT registered and enjoy end-user relief on duty (which is 2.7 to 7.7 percent), the island is part of a common area with the UK for Customs & Excise purposes, so private individuals have to pay VAT on purchases of equipment and supplies.

The January 1 VAT changes came after Isle of Man/UK VAT law was found to be incompatible with EU law, and even though the Isle of Man itself is outside the EU, it is affected by virtue of the common agreement with the UK.

Previously zero rating for VAT would apply for aircraft above 8,000 kg, depending on its use, and the use for which it was designed. Now, the test is based on the status of the business that operates the aircraft. A “qualifying aircraft” is any aircraft that is used “by an airline operating for reward chiefly in international routes.” As of August 1, flights between the UK and the Isle of Man will not count as “international.” Luckily, as Alistair Nash of Isle of Man Customs & Excise pointed out, there is a “look-through” allowing zero-rating for leasing and finance as long as the aircraft is used by the end user “fully in their airline business.”

As Johnson confirmed, the agreement the island has with the UK CAA means that it is not possible to have on the register purely commercial aircraft–that is, any aircraft on an AOC, but “airline business” is construed more widely to cover aircraft purchased through a Manx SPV and can be used by a corporation, which owns the SPV and pays it for use of the asset.

Harley Richards, tax manager with accountants KPMG on the island, outlined how aircraft ownership through Manx SPVs could be structured to minimize benefits in kind taxation of the owner, which stands prima facie at 20 percent of “the aircraft market value when first placed at the employees’ disposal.” This is a problem if the aircraft is not used much, so he suggested restriction of access to the aircraft to reduce the bill drastically, and even more so if in the Isle of Man with its low rates. “The only test is whether the aircraft is available, not whether you can or do use it,” he warned.

Given the likely continued growth in size and sophistication of the register, the island itself is gearing up to be more bizav-friendly. A new business aviation center and FBO is to be established soon at the island’s main airport, Ronaldsway, as well as new hangar space adjacent to the newly extended runway end. The FBO is still subject to a legal dispute with the building contractor, but airport director Ann Reynolds told AIN she is confident it will be resolved soon so that work can start.