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Flight School Threat Continues

AFTER FOREIGN terrorists who had trained at American flight schools hijacked four planes and drove two into the Twin Towers and one into the Pentagon on 9-11, Congress passed a number of laws to strengthen homeland security. One law aimed to prevent foreign nationals who might be a security threat from taking flight training in the United States. Now, it appears that goal is far from achieved.

To implement the law, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) developed the Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP) to ensure that foreign nationals who pose a security threat would not be allowed to receive flight training. But a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report and a congressional hearing spotlighted several ways in which these efforts fall short of the mark.

One problem is that many foreign nationals who are receiving flight training have not gone through the vetting process. Additionally, the GAO found that AFSP was not designed to determine whether a foreign national was in the country illegally. In the most egregious case, a 2010 investigation found that a Boston-area flight school had trained at least eight illegal immigrants, three of whom had received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) airman certificates. Seventeen other individuals trained at the school were in visa “overstay” status.

Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL) said during the hearing that the findings clearly showed that not all foreign nationals who were receiving flight training in the United States were being properly vetted, and he said that was “extremely disturbing.” The background checks that the potential foreign national flight students are supposed to be subject to include name-based checks and a look at fingerprints and passports, as well as screening through terrorist databases.

To determine whether appropriate background checks were being conducted, the GAO compared the FAA’s list of foreign nationals holding a pilot’s license with the list of completed background checks; the numbers did not match up.

Though TSA screens FAA airman certificate holders against terrorist databases, the screening occurs after the foreign national has received flight training, which does not eliminate the type of threat that led to 9-11, notes the report. Stephen Lord, the GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues, said during the hearing that the GAO was not allowed to release the exact number of individuals who received the flight training but were not properly vetted beforehand.

Lord pointed out that the GAO could not figure out why some individuals were never vetted and why some individuals who had illegal immigration status or expired visas were still able to pass part of the background check.

Much of the cause of the problem was, therefore, attributed to the TSA’s need for stronger controls to ensure that the vetting is being done and TSA’s need to better coordinate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is also carrying out the background checks.

Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS) asked the panel during the hearing if someone who was on the nation’s no-fly list could, in fact, receive flight training due to the lax vetting. Kerwin Wilson, TSA’s manager for general aviation, answered in the affirmative, but noted that they would then be continually vetted when they received their license.

“I don’t think somebody who wants to do harm is not going to do harm because they don’t have a license. We trained them to do harm, that’s my concern,” said Thompson.

Doug Carr represented the National Business Aviation Association at the hearing, and he pointed out that there is also an issue of repetitive vetting because individuals are to be vetted every time they sign on for a new level of training. He recommended having an assessment last for five years.

GAO recommended that TSA identify “any instances where foreign nationals received FAA airman certificates without first undergoing a TSA security threat assessment and examine those instances so that TSA can identify the reasons for these occurrences and strengthen controls to prevent future occurrences.” The report notes that “DHS concurred with this recommendation.”

Additionally, during the hearing, John Woods, ICE’s assistant director of national security, said that the agency is working with TSA on doing alien checks of names in the TSA databases. GAO recommended that TSA and ICE develop a plan by December 2012 to assess the results of this pilot test, which will “check TSA AFSP data against information DHS has on applicants’ admissibility status to help detect and identify violations, such as overstays and entries without inspection, by foreign flight students, and institute that pilot program if it is found to be effective.”

“We have cancer patients, Iraq war veterans, Nobel Peace Prize winners all forced to undergo rigorous security checks before getting on an airplane,” but not all of the people training to fly planes are receiving scrutiny, said Rogers. “Is that risk-based security? I don’t think so.”