The internet can be a wonderful thing. From the convenience of your computer you can buy most things aviation. Whether you are looking for pilot supplies, aviation paraphernalia or even an aircraft, it is quite likely that you can locate, and complete, your purchase via the internet. But, the convenience of buying through the internet doesn't always mean that you are really receiving the item for which you paid, or that you will be able to actually use the item as anticipated. A recent Legal Interpretation issued by the FAA's Office of the Chief Counsel illustrates this point.
This particular Legal Interpretation responded to a request from an individual regarding an advertisement on an internet auction site promoting the sale of "high quality reproduction aircraft identification plates." Specifically, the individual wanted to know how to determine "whether a reproduction plate is 'eligible for installation on a type certificated product.'"
The Interpretation initially notes 14 C.F.R. § 21.8 states that a part which must be approved by the FAA, such as an aircraft data plate, must be approved for production under a parts manufacturing authority (PMA), a type supplemental order (TSO), in conjunction with type certification procedures, or the catchall: "in any other manner approved by the FAA." It goes on to observe that, not surprisingly, when it comes to installation of data plates on aircraft, the FAA usually relies upon the original aircraft manufacturer to install the data plates on its aircraft.
According to the FAA Chief Counsel, the FAA views the aircraft manufacturer's installation of the data plates as a declaration or representation that the aircraft conforms to its type design. If for some reason the aircraft manufacturer refuses to issue or install data plates, the FAA assumes (yes, the Legal Interpretation actually uses the word "assumes") the aircraft does not conform to its type design.
With that background, the Interpretation then addressed several situations in which the aircraft owner may not have original identification plates issued by the aircraft manufacturer. First, if the data plate is lost, stolen or damaged during maintenance operations, the Interpretation states that the aircraft owner should "seek a replacement from the aircraft's original manufacturer." Unfortunately, since product liability exposure is always a concern for manufacturers, they are reluctant to issue a new data plate and expose themselves to additional potential liability for an aircraft whose condition they have been unable or unwilling to verify. As a result, that option is seldom successful.
Next, the Interpretation addressed the situation in which "the aircraft's original manufacturer is no longer in business or is otherwise unable or unwilling to produce a replacement plate for reasons unrelated to the condition of the aircraft. It observed that FAA Advisory Circular 45-2D, Identification and Registration Marking provides a means of compliance. Referencing Section 6(i)(3) of AC 45-2D, the Interpretation states than an owner or operator may only buy data plates from an approved source after "going through the process" of contacting the local Flight Safety Standards District Office (FSDO) or Manufacturing Inspection District Office (MIDO) for assistance and approval in obtaining a replacement. Unfortunately, neither the Interpretation nor AC 45-2D provide any explanation for what this "process" involves or requires from the aircraft owner or operator, nor does it state what the FSDO or MIDO are obligated to do in assisting or providing approval of a replacement data plate. As a result, it is unclear whether this is truly a practical or viable option.
Finally, in addressing the specific request before it, the Interpretation concludes that "[a] reproduction identification plate sold on an online auction website would presumably be produced by neither the manufacturer nor an FAA-approved alternative source (such as a PMA holder for the article), and therefore it could not indicate to the FAA that an aircraft conforms to its type design." And without an approved data plate to "prove" conformity with the type design, the aircraft would be ineligible for a standard airworthiness certificate.
So, the moral of the story: Simply because you can buy replacement data plates on the internet (or anything else for that matter), that doesn't mean you can use them. At least the individual in this case asked the question before, rather than after, spending good money on "reproduction" data plates. But, as with most purchases, some degree of "caveat emptor" is almost always a good thing.