If the FAA says I own my aircraft, do I really?

By Wright Brothers Aircraft Title

 

Not necessarily. Here’s why.

Philko Aviation, Inc. v. Shacket

United States Supreme Court 462 U.S. 406 (1983)

This is a great example of aircraft ownership and the role of the FAA in sales transactions. In this case, a shady character, Roger Smith, sold an aircraft to the Shackets. Smith provided the aircraft and a photocopy of the bill of sale and told Shacket that he would take care of the paperwork. He never filed the bill of sale with the FAA, so there was no record the transaction ever happened. Shady Smith then resold the same aircraft to Philko Aviation. He told Philko that the plane was in Michigan but provided them with the title documents. Because he provided a bill of sale and there was no record at the FAA of Shacket sale, Philko’s bank closed the deal and filed the bill of sale with the FAA.

So, both parties paid for the plane, but Shacket had the aircraft and Philko had the title. Who really owned it?

The Shackets sued in federal court for ownership of the aircraft. Philko claimed that they had the right to the aircraft because the Shackets did not file any title documents with the FAA (as required by § 503(c) of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. 49 U.S.C. §§ 1301 et. seq). Obviously, both parties felt they had a right to own the plane. After all, they both paid for it, right?

The court ruled in favor of the Shackets. The reason? The Shackets had a good title under Illinois’ Uniform Commercial Code, which was NOT preempted by the Federal law § 503(c). The law stated that an oral sale is valid against third parties once the buyer takes possession of the aircraft.

The FAA and Aircraft Ownership

What is interesting and notable about this case is the party who held title according to the FAA records was not the party who won the case. In other words, the FAA said that Philko owned the plane, but the courts disagreed and gave the plane to the Shackets because they were in possession of it. Philko Aviation did the right thing by filing with the FAA, but that was not the deciding factor. Possession is 9/10ths of the law, and this case was no different. The party in possession won.

What can we learn from this? Be careful who you deal with. The global nature of aircraft transactions makes it hard for buyers and sellers to know each other. In a previous blog, Born in a Pool Hall, we outline the origins and reasons for using a trusted escrow agent. In this instance, having used a trusted, neutral third party to handle funds and documents would have saved both parties a lot of time, energy, and heartache.