How do Aircraft Registry Structures Differ?

Top aircraft registries don’t like being called ‘registries of convenience’. While ‘registries of choice’ might be more appropriate, how can structural differences shape the services offered and, ultimately, an owner/operator’s choice? Chris Kjelgaard explores…

Chris Kjelgaard  |  20th July 2023
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Chris Kjelgaard
Chris Kjelgaard

Chris Kjelgaard has been an aviation journalist for more than 40 years and has written on multiple topics...

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Do you know how aircraft registries differ in structure?

Over the past 30 years several ICAO-authorized aircraft registries – almost all of them representing smaller nations or territories, island or otherwise – have operated and generally blossomed, in large part because of the growth of the Business Aviation industry. But what has led to their success?

The success of the earlier smaller registries encouraged the formation and subsequent growth of others – again in line with the increasing presence and role of Business Aviation as an important component of the global aviation industry.

But while all this growth has been going on many of the smaller aircraft registries have gradually come to be thought of as ‘registries of convenience’ – rather like the ‘flag of convenience’ national ship registries which, since the 1950s, have come to dominate the global ship-registration picture (Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands and the Bahamas).

However, while the ‘flag of convenience’ ship registries primarily grew because ship-owners mainly used them to avoid labor, taxation, or seaworthiness regulations in the nations in which the owners were domiciled, the supposed aircraft registries of convenience are invariably anything but lax in terms of their regulatory frameworks and oversight.

Like civil aviation as a whole – which is demonstrably the most safety-oriented and safety-regulated mode of transport globally – the more specialized national aircraft registries strictly adhere to the safety rules applied by their respective national Departments of Civil Aviation (DCAs), in compliance with the safety standards adopted by all ICAO Member states.

Why Choose a Specialized Aircraft Registry

As a result, says Colin Gill, Deputy Director of Civil Aviation for the Isle of Man (IOM), registries which are more specialized in their focus – that focus being Business Aviation in the IOM Aircraft Registry’s case – dislike being thought of merely as ‘registries of convenience’. They do not serve as solutions for owners to get round irksome regulations elsewhere.

Instead, argues Gill, while the market is very competitive, the specialized registries should really be thought of as ‘registries of choice’.

Owners choose to place their aircraft on those registries not because it lets them dodge labor laws or safety regulations – though in some cases it does let them forego customs duties and sales taxes potentially levied if their aircraft were registered elsewhere – but primarily because the specialized registries offer very high standards of service.

Like the registries of large nations such as the US, Canada, Germany and the UK, the smaller registries provide stringent safety oversight through their ICAO-rated national DCAs, which must sign all certificates of airworthiness and registration the registries provide aircraft owners.

Unlike the large-nation registries, however, the smaller registries which are focused on serving Business Aviation and Private Aviation clients strive to eliminate the service delays and inconvenience inevitably created by the large bureaucracies found in all major- nation DCAs.

Anecdotally, for instance, reports suggest that to place a business aircraft on the German register (upon which more business jets are registered than any other European registry) the aircraft owner or his/her representative must provide all the requisite documentation on paper.

According to reports, the owner or representative must then present the paper documentation in person at the desks of the relevant registration department in the Luftfahrt-Bundesamt, Germany’s DCA, located in Braunschweig, not Berlin. 

Prompt registration of each aircraft and fast responses to other customer-support service requests are the stock in trade of every one of the specialized smaller registries.

Crucially, that includes issuance of the aircraft's annually-renewable airworthiness certificate and its certificate of registration, as well as any other supplementary licenses and certifications required to operate the aircraft.

Customer-support requests can include all crew, flight and equipment- certification permissions needed to resolve sudden AOG operational issues, so registry responses do sometimes need to be very fast indeed.

Adopting the ethos of being a service-provider (rather than merely a registry of record), each of the Business/Private Aviation-focused registries offers a variety of services – though these can differ from registry- to-registry.

Of course, each aircraft registry will have something different to offer to aircraft owners and operators who register their aircraft with them. What are some of the aircraft registry structural differences?

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