Government begins tighter security checks on foreigners applying to U.S. flight schools

Friday, October 22nd 2004, 9:11 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The federal government has begun conducting background checks on all foreigners seeking to attend U.S. flight schools, the Transportation Security Administration said Friday.

The expanded security measures, aimed in part at preventing potential terrorists from taking pilot lessons here as some of the Sept. 11 hijackers did, now apply to any foreigner seeking flight training in the United States, not just those learning to fly larger aircraft.

Those who want to attend flight school for a second time _ for certification to fly a different classification of aircraft, for example _ will need to have their backgrounds checked again.

Previously, only those training on aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or more had their backgrounds checked.

``Fortifying security by knowing who trains at these schools is an integral part of our mission to secure the homeland,'' said TSA chief David Stone, whose agency expanded the pool to include smaller aircraft on Wednesday.

The new rules follow the TSA's takeover of the program from the Justice Department on Oct. 5. All foreign applicants, including certified pilots, will have to undergo TSA checks starting Dec. 19.

The Justice Department has said 30,000 foreigners applied to U.S. flight schools last year.

Under the Justice Department program, they were required to provide fingerprints, passport and visa information and the type of training sought. Since the TSA took over, applicants have had to submit another set of fingerprints.

Terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, the only U.S. defendant accused of participating in the al-Qaida Sept. 11 plot, was arrested a month prior to the attacks when he aroused suspicions at a flight school. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers rented small aircraft several times in the summer before the attacks for practice flights.

TSA's security checks do not apply to foreign students already in training or enrolled in flight schools, though they are required for pilots training for another level or type of aircraft.

That has raised financial concerns among U.S. schools training pilots for foreign airlines, said Steven Daun, director of career training at Aeroservice Aviation Center in Virginia Gardens, Fla.

``We understand the need for national security, but you can't penalize the people who have already been cleared as not being a threat,'' he said.

This month, Daun noticed that foreign airlines have begun moving their flight training offshore to avoid a costly wait in the United States for another background check.

Though he agreed with additional scrutiny of individuals seeking pilot lessons, Daun argued that more security checks for many foreign airline pilots are needless since they have often already been fingerprinted and checked by their airline, for U.S. visas and by the Justice Department when it ran the program.

At a national pilots convention in Long Beach, Calif., flight instructors said the federal rule was unfairly asking them to do the government's job.

``TSA is turning flight instructors into unpaid border guards,'' said Phil Boyer, head of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Instructors said they weren't trained to recognize possible forged documents and argued that the TSA's bureaucracy will needlessly bog down their schools, forcing some to stop taking students.

``It's going to put us out of business,'' said Michael Vivion, an instructor from Fairbanks, Alaska. ``My little Cessna 170 is not a huge threat to national security.''

Stone, who addressed a sometimes hostile crowd of pilots at the convention Friday, said the rule was needed ``in order to prevent individuals from exploiting the state-of-the-art training that we have and using that against us.''

However, he promised to meet with pilots groups in coming weeks to address their concerns, and TSA spokesman Nico Melendez later said portions of the rule could be changed.

``If we need to make modifications, certainly we are open to that, so long as we are able to keep a level of security,'' Melendez said.

Other components of the new security assessments include a $130 application fee, and requirements for flight schools to give TSA photographs of students and provide their own staff with annual security awareness training.