A plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport.
A plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: Here's a story that might give new meaning to the phrase "unidentified flying object." The Associated Press reported today that the federal government isn't sure who owns roughly a third of all the private and commercial airplanes that are out there flying around. Around 119,000 planes have what the Federal Aviation Administration calls "questionable registration." So the FAA's going to be canceling all registration certificates over the next three years and making owners and airlines register all over again.

Marketplace's Bob Moon reports.

Bob Moon: The AP report says the FAA fears the paperwork gap could be exploited by terrorists, drug traffickers and other criminals. But a spokeswoman for the agency characterized the wire-service report as "overblown."

Industry experts we spoke to today said requiring owners to repeatedly re-register does little to stop criminals from using aircraft. David Warner is general counsel for the National Aircraft Finance Association.

David Warner: Drug runners use cars to smuggle drugs in every day of the week, right? The ownership records on cars have absolutely nothing to do with whether the cars are going to be used to smuggle or not.

Warner suggests the FAA's number of questionable registrations exaggerates the problem, because in most cases, the information is simply incomplete.

Warner: They changed addresses, but they didn't notify the FAA of an updated address, for example. Person's flying it, but they just haven't got around to transferring it, and they're not bad people. Take that out, then that number shrinks considerably.

The new rule does create more expense for big lenders, Warner says, because they need to ensure the planes to which they hold the title remain registered. But the FAA told Marketplace more reliable record-keeping will make it easier to alert owners to safety issues.

Industry consultant Mike Boyd sees another benefit.

Mike Boyd: If we have a clear idea of how many airplanes are registered, that gives the FAA the data they need to plan out how much airway infrastructure we need, how many runways we need, what kind of staffing we need. But when you lose track of 119,000 airplanes, that's pretty hard to do.

Boyd says he's encouraged that an agency he criticizes for being long mismanaged, now has an administrator committed to fixing the problems.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.