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(This arguably is a question for SE.Law, but because it's so aviation-specific I figured I would ask it here first)

A partner got this in a routine excise tax email from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (MA-DOR):

Our records indicate that your Aircraft Registration in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is set to expire on December 31, 2023.

If your Aircraft Registration has expired, as the aircraft owner, you cannot legally operate your aircraft until you receive your 2024 new registration certificate.

This got me a little curious. I could certainly see a state law which forbids locally registered aircraft from landing/taking off at state-owned airports, but I don't understand how one state can revoke airworthiness from the national airspace system. (I only have that excerpt to go off of, so don't know if a specific US or MA law was referenced. Thanks to @Chris, we have the relevant MA law: https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2017/10/30/702cmr3.pdf)

Does a US state have US-wide airworthiness authority over airplanes registered within that state?


Update

I think this question is somewhat confusing because of a widespread mistaken understanding of what "airworthy" means. As MichaelHall shows in his answer, it's definition is "the aircraft conforms to its type design and is in a condition for safe operation." Unfortunately many of us, myself included, were taught that full paperwork compliance was also required for airworthiness. This led to me using the wrong word in the question.

I'm going to keep the original question as asked, because the answers are not wrong vis-a-vis the original wording. Fixing it would do a disservice to the existing answers, and if I need further clarification about state's ability to regulate aviation outside their borders I will ask at SE.Law.

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No, and Massachusetts law doesn't claim to. Massachusetts only forbids you from flying in Massachusetts if you are supposed to register in Massachusetts and fail to. From 702 CMR 3.02(6):

No person shall operate an aircraft or permit any other person to operate such aircraft within the commonwealth unless the aircraft is permitted to operate within the commonwealth pursuant to M.G.L. c. 90, § 48, 14 C.F.R. Subchapter C and 702 CMR 3.02(1) through (4).

Note that "the commonwealth" refers to Massachusetts in the text above.

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    $\begingroup$ @KennSebesta I agree with your reading that the law forbids flying in or over Massachusetts. But this doesn't make the aircraft unairworthy from a Federal perspective- if you operate the aircraft in Massachusetts you are in violation of state law but not in violation of Federal law. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Dec 28, 2023 at 23:41
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    $\begingroup$ @KennSebesta This law, if it were applied to overflights of Massachusetts that do not land anywhere in the commonwealth is probably unconstitutional. But states and local authorities can regulate what happens on land. Since 702 CMR 3.02 only applies to aircraft based in Massachusetts it's hard to imagine a situation where it would apply to you if you never land in the commonwealth, so it may be a moot point. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Dec 28, 2023 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ It would certainly be unconstitutional to try to force non-based aircraft that fly over Massachusetts to register there. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Dec 28, 2023 at 23:55
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    $\begingroup$ @KennSebesta, "Unfit to fly" and "airworthy" (or non-airworthy) are terms not mentioned in either the letter your friend received, or the law you linked to. Registration with the state is simply an administrative requirement they have enacted to generate revenue. You are reading more into this than is there. $\endgroup$ Dec 29, 2023 at 5:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Kenn I think a lot of the grief you're getting is because you keep using the term "airworthy" when it doesn't have anything to do with the situation. "Airworthiness" is at base a physical property: is the aircraft physically capable of flying safely, is it physically in compliance with its type certificate, etc. An automobile might by physically safe but illegal to drive because its registration is expired; the letter in question similarly says that the aircraft will be illegal to fly if its registration expires. That has nothing to do with whether it is "airworthy" or not. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Jan 3 at 15:23
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No.

Does a US state have US-wide airworthiness authority over airplanes registered within that state?

There are two parts to this question - airworthiness and jurisdiction.

AIRWORTHINESS:

14 CFR, Part 3, Subpart A, § 3.5 defines the term airworthy:

Airworthy means the aircraft conforms to its type design and is in a condition for safe operation.

The word is well defined, and has a very specific, and limited in scope meaning that is not applicable in this case. In other words, it does NOT mean "not legal to fly due to failure to meet a state department of revenue administrative requirement". It means only what the FAA says it means. ...Full stop, no ifs ands or buts.

Neither the letter your friend received or the state law regarding registration use the term "airworthy" or any of its derivatives. Nor does either one hint that failure to register would render the aircraft out of compliance to its type design, or not in a condition for safe operation.

JURISDICTION:

Jurisdiction is a foundational concept of law. It limits the authority of a legal entity or policy making body to specific geographic borders, and/or subject matters.

The state of Massachusetts does not have "US wide authority" over aviation matters, or really any other function that occurs outside its borders. No state does, Massachusetts does not claim or even hint that it does, and it is unreasonable to presume otherwise.

You may infer, from the letter you quoted, the following addition in bold:

Our records indicate that your Aircraft Registration in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is set to expire on December 31, 2023.

If your Aircraft Registration has expired, as the aircraft owner, you cannot legally operate your aircraft [in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts] until you receive your 2024 new registration certificate.

(It was likely omitted in the second paragraph because it is unnecessarily redundant for the general populace.)

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  • $\begingroup$ In other words, the answer to OP's question is "no" but only because they're asking the wrong question... they mean to ask "Can a US state make it illegal to operate an aircraft" which is not at all the same question as "Can a US state deem an aircraft unairworthy." $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Jan 3 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ Sort of... but who are we to judge the question "wrong"? (Can a US state make it illegal to do something in other states is also a "wrong" question...) We can only answer what was asked, and in doing so perhaps point out any fallacies at the root of the question. $\endgroup$ Jan 3 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall thanks for posting the relevant FAR. That was very helpful in challenging what I was taught long ago by a CFI, which is that noncompliant paperwork equals "unairworthy". $\endgroup$ Jan 3 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ There's a strange pedantry about answering the literal question, but not engaging with the literal source of the question. States cast power outside themselves all the time. For instance, if a driver's license is suspended by the issuing state, all other states agree to honor it. The effect is all that matters to the lay person, not the exact mechanism used. Likewise, when a MA rep says "illegal to fly" that's no different from an MA police officer saying "illegal to drive". Ignoring that with a Dukes of Hazard jump to the next county is done at the pilot's peril. $\endgroup$ Jan 3 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ @KennSebesta, I am sensitive to pedantry and Cliff Clavinism in all forms, and I generally try to avoid it. (Sure, if someone says "inadvertent IFR" I might quip Oh, you accidently filed an instrument flight plan and picked up a clearance?! but I do it with a twinkle in my eye...) Anyway, I certainly didn't mean to beat you up on this. Again, it isn't my definition, it is the FAA's. Good point about possible reciprocity agreements between the states, or states and the FAA, but pretty sure the "R" in AROW requires Federal Registration, not State. Maybe a focused follow up question? $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 0:36

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