The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is to review records of over 11,000 aircraft that may not be properly registered or compliant with safety regulations, after an anonymous whistleblower drew attention to multiple issues with the agency’s aircraft oversight.

In a letter to President Trump and the United States Congress on 13 June, the US Office of Special Counsel said the FAA had confirmed allegations first made in an anonymous tip-off in 2017 that its inspectors had been improperly approving aircraft for commercial operations.

According to a report by the FAA Office of Audit and Evaluation (AAE) from November last year, nine of the regulator’s safety inspectors had approved aircraft to fly under Part 135 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which provides for air carrier and operator certification, without properly reviewing exemptions.

The report also said that the agency’s civil aviation registry had not taken “sufficient steps” to make sure that aircraft could be located, and owners identified and contacted, as required by Part 47 of CFR Title 114. As such, a large number of aircraft may have remained in operation after their registration had expired.

The FAA told ALN that it expected to have completed “corrective actions” recommended by the AAE by September 2018. So far, the agency has established a task force to analyse around 1,000 exemptions and records for over 11,000 aircraft and determine what “airworthiness actions” are necessary to ensure future safety. The agency said it would also revise guidance for inspectors in a bid to “provide clarity” and make certain that aircraft are properly cleared to fly.

“When the FAA does not know the location of an aircraft, the owner of an aircraft, or whether the owner might be deliberately attempting to circumvent safety regulations, that’s a serious problem,” special counsel Henry Kerner said in a statement. “Thankfully, because a whistleblower came forward, the FAA now appears to be taking this issue seriously and has initiated corrective action to ensure inspectors don’t cut corners and are better equipped to keep our airspace safe.”

While it is unlikely that penalties will be imposed on the FAA, Jol Silversmith, a partner at Zuckert Scoutt Rasenberger in Washington, DC, told ALN that if the FAA does not follow the AAE’s recommendations, the result could be “more Congressional scrutiny and possibly a statutory change that will require the agency to follow the recommendations”.

Mark Dombroff, a partner at LeClairRyan in Virginia, said that while the FAA has faced similar issues in the past, it is striking that “the involved whistleblower seems to have raised this issue several years ago, and it appears that it is taken until now for the FAA to focus on taking action.”

He said it didn’t appear that the investigations had revealed accidents caused by the inspectors’ failure to apply the regulations, but that “the regulations, training and guidance ha[ve] been vague enough that even the inspectors did not fully understand or know how to apply it.”