Why Are There Thousands Of Foreign Registered Planes In The Small Texas Town Of Onalaska- A Town With NO Airport?

Foreign ownership of thousands of U.S. aircraft cloaked in secrecy ...

ONALASKA, Texas — Onalaska, Texas, has a secret.

Nestled along the piney shores of an East Texas lake, Onalaska lacks an airport.

A WFAA review, however, has found more than 1,000 registered aircraft claiming an Onalaska address. That’s equivalent to one plane for every three Onalaska residents, which is more per capita than anywhere else in the country.

In fact, more planes are registered to Onalaska than the number of registered planes in entire cities such as Seattle, San Antonio, San Diego, or even New York.

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.

WFAA has learned 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.

“When you can conceal the true ownership of a plane, you’re putting a lot of people in jeopardy,” said Joe Gutheinz, a former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) special agent. “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.”

But industry advocates told WFAA that large corporations and foreign partnerships often need to use trusts because of the FAA’s strict citizenship requirements.

To register a plane, owners need to be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. However, the FAA will allow foreigners to register their planes by transferring a title to a U.S. trustee.

For $5, an owner can register a plane with the FAA.

Planes registered to the name of U.S. trust carry an “N” tail number. It’s a distinction that experts say carries advantages, including allowing planes to receive less scrutiny than when carrying a tail number from a different country.

Trust company officials who handle such trusts told WFAA that they use “due diligence” when vetting owners to ensure they are reputable. However, others disagree and say too little information is readily available in the FAA registry, allowing foreigners to shield their true ownership from law enforcement.

“We shouldn’t require less information to … to register a car than to register an aircraft,” U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) told WFAA. “If you are a foreign national … you can register an aircraft here and the government doesn’t know anything about it. Come one. It’s laughable.”

In a post 9/11 America, Gutheinz and Lynch question the practice.

Federal studies back them up.

In 2013, an audit by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Transportation estimated that about 5,600 planes “lacked key information” about the true ownership.

In a random review of the five major trust companies with the most registrations, federal investigators found the companies “could not or would not provide” the identities of three of four foreign owners requested.

One of the trustees even requested that investigators subpoena the information. The trustees that did provide the information took two months to do so.

“Without collecting and maintaining complete and accurate aircraft data, FAA increases the risk of not meeting its aviation safety mission,” the audit found.

Now trustees are required to turn over the information to the FAA within 48 hours. The 48-hour requirement, however, is too long given the potential for disaster, Lynch said.

“That is not a good policy,” said Lynch, who chairs the House National Security Subcommittee. “We shouldn’t be into accident re-construction. At that point we’re too late in the game.”