Grassley Says FAA Loopholes Aid Drug Runners


According to GlobalAir, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is calling on the FAA to tighten up aircraft registration to prevent drug cartels from using N-registered planes to move drugs. Grassley, who’s co-chair of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, issued a report on Monday alleging the cartels are using loopholes to get U.S. registration on drug-running aircraft. “Air transportation is a favored method for the cartels and a burgeoning industry of illicit aircraft brokers has grown up around it,” the report said. “These brokers exploit vulnerabilities and loopholes in the Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft registry process to place U.S.-registered planes in the hands of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).”

Ironically, N-registered aircraft are in hot demand by the drug trade because they are considered well vetted and therefore don’t get as much scrutiny by foreign government agencies. Grassley said the General Accountability Office made 15 recommendations to tighten up registration in 2020 but so far only three have been acted upon. He said foreign shell companies and non-citizen trusts are the likely owners of about 5,000 aircraft on the registry and that the addresses of record for at least 25,000 aircraft don’t exist.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. We’re talking about criminal organizations, right? Why would they care about the actual FAA registry? They just get a stencil and some paint and put whatever number they think is beneficial on the side of the aircraft.

    • This is police state stuff. I still remember John and Martha King being stopped on a taxiway and had loaded guns pointed at them because mindless law enforcement acted on a “FAA Registry” error.

  2. Aviation has always been a favorite target for the government to focus on when looking for smugglers. I live next to a small border crossing where three thousand trucks a day are transporting goods to and from Mexico. The cartels have an easier time smuggling with cheap trucks than using aircraft. The restrictions already in place have nearly stopped private pilots from flying to Mexico.

    • Not to mention the millions of container ships entering this country every year. And the politicians are concerned about a few small planes? Really?

  3. What does this mean for us? We have to show 6 points of ID to renew our registration? The FAA is so far behind in renewals that they finally came to their senses and extended the time frame. If Grassley gets his way, it will be back to long delays in renewals. I sincerely doubt this is as big an issues as he states.

  4. I don’t recall that it was in the FAA’s job description to do criminal investigations.
    We already have local and foreign intelligence agencies for that.

  5. Let me guess, Senator Grassley wanted a specific N-number for his private jet, but it was already taken.

  6. 25,000 aircraft with bogus addresses seems a bit lofty and unlikely. Unless Sen. Grassley is including all of the aircraft registered in DE who are trying to avoid their own state taxes. You don’t think……..

    • Most of the “bogus” N numbers are unairworthy aircraft sitting in hangars and ramps where previous owners just didn’t bother to deregister them. Every GA airport has their share.

    • Unless that GII pictured has a hush kit on it, that plane is no longer legal to fly in the US, and many parts of Canada also.

  7. I can’t understand all the negativity over this one. It’s all valid – well not the “shell companies” and other nefarious activity, but the concern over the issue. However I don’t see it as an FAA issue. Seems like a great assignment for that fresh out of overpriced university kid that’s just starting out in the DEA. It is all administrative. Consequently a great introduction to the very uninteresting (but absolutely essential) aspects of law enforcement. But it’s not FAA’s place to verify every bit of information. That’s for the DEA.

    I’d also have to say it doesn’t seem to be a “loophole.” The system is set up to register aircraft – not catch criminals. As it sits, it accomplishes its goal.

    And to those who mentioned trucks and ships; well it’s just very obvious that you’ve never driven a truck across the border – or dealt with customs at the landing of a ship. Those guys mean business! I’ve crossed both Southern and Northern borders of the US with a truck many times. It’s not the “easy out” that you seem to think it is. Same with container ships. Once on the dock, the Customs and Border guys will usually run their dogs all around – and those dogs are amazing. The shipping container route is a good way to leave a trail behind and get everybody arrested – not the “smart” move. Air is the least risk for the best effect. An “N number” helps that as it is perceived as rich “Nortenos” playing. If you add a pilot that doesn’t “sound Spanish” you’ve got the easiest crossing there is.

    I think its another factor of negativity for GA. We GA folks ought to be far more upset with this practice than anyone as it makes us all look bad.

    But I can’t figure out how 25000 aircraft that don’t exist could possibly help the cartels. If this is true it is an issue. I do know that the FAA has a whole bunch of dead pilots still shown on their lists, so I wouldn’t doubt the aircraft side of things isn’t any better. But right now they’ve get more important things to worry about. This is just a politician that needed some ink and should not be taken seriously.

    • Don’t think flying an airplane across the border is a cakewalk either. If the crew and owner are following the law clearing customs is not any easier. Ralph Strahm makes a valid point, with all of the restrictions in play with crossing the border to Mexico or coming back, I know many pilots who cringe at the thought of flying into Mexico. Dealing with US customs makes me avoid any flight out of the country. Makes me even more mad thinking of all the nonsense going on at the border now, but that is for another discussion. In other words the senator needs to look elsewhere to solve the drug smuggling issue. GA already has to deal with plenty of FARs that were enacted to stop drug smugglers. Obviously they aren’t working!

    • It may be legal but it’s not a valid concern. When shipping containers (TEU’s) contain stolen vehicles, drugs, blackmarket kickoffs, Aliens!!! and only a handful of these containers are examined it begs the question: Border security–Really!!!

  8. The US is has the greatest amount of private aircraft and non-airline pilots in the world and dwindling as it may be, that just won’t do. The FAA is responsible for staffing the agency with the highest level of incompetency imaginable, with one objective. Get rid of private pilots, private aircraft and mechanics so the only aircraft are military and airlines and everyone works for them. The FAA considers this a positive move in controlling the industry. They are almost there.

    • While it’s not stated policy, it’s certainly is working that way in practice by greatly reducing the ability of average families to own and operate their own planes. Here again they are now treating everyone as a “bad guy” instead of working to making things easier for everyone and then ONLY going after the real bad guys.

  9. The role of government is to protect us from high quality and low prices. This is just a temporary sidestep and is focussed on the folks voting this November who want the quick soundbites without the drudgery of considering what factual basis exists.

  10. What a joke, the biggest loophole the government forced on the American people is the southern border, 10 million Illegals and massive amounts of fentanyl, how about start with that. These politicians are the true criminals.