Flight schools shouldn’t be scapegoat for foreign student vetting

Government restraints on TSA make background checks difficult

July 19, 2012

A Government Accountability Office report released July 18 indicates that foreign students in the United States received flight training—and earned their pilot certificate—even though some had entered the country illegally or had overstayed their authorized period.

GAO’s misleading intent

The Government Accountability Office reached out to AOPA and other associations during the study, specifically working with AOPA to identify potential airports that had aircraft operators with aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds. However, the report included only a small portion on general aviation security related to these aircraft.

Once at the airports, the group asked if any flight schools were on the field. AOPA believed the inspections were for aircraft security at the schools and was never informed of the interviews regarding the TSA’s Alien Flight Student Program. As a result, the association did not have any input in that aspect of the study.

The breakdown that allowed the oversight occurred from a lack of communication among governmental agencies, not a lack of compliance from flight training providers, AOPA says.

Flight schools do their part

Flight schools and instructors are following the regulations in the Transportation Security Administration’s Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP), required to submit documentation, finger prints, and other information for vetting. The students undergo a criminal history check, screening against the terrorist database, and a review through an information-sharing platform (however, the TSA does not have full access to those databases to perform in-depth checks beyond what a private employer could do). The schools and CFIs do not begin training the student until they receive a green light from the TSA.

“As of January 2012, inspection results show that the rate of compliance with AFSP requirements increased from 89 percent in fiscal year 2005 to 96 percent in fiscal year 2011,” the report said of flight schools. Schools are now inspected twice a year for compliance.

“The public, media, lawmakers—everyone—should be careful not to point fingers at flight schools and flight instructors because these foreign students were able to learn how to fly,” said Tom Zecha, AOPA manager of aviation security. “The vetting process of a foreign student is extensive and involves many government agencies. Flight training providers have done their due diligence to provide all of the required documentation for review by government agencies. They are only training the foreign students once they receive permission from the government.”

Inter-agency communication breakdown

The report, “General Aviation Security: Weaknesses exist in TSA’s process for ensuring foreign flight students do not pose a security threat,” was based on a March 2011 to July 2012 study that included interviews with 10 flight schools at eight airports in Southern California, Texas, and Florida. The study also compared FAA airmen data on foreign nationals from January 2006 through September 2011 to TSA data to determine if “foreign nationals in the FAA airmen registry were in the AFSP database and whether they had been successfully vetted through AFSP.”

According to the report, of the 116,000 training applications from foreign students, 107 requests were denied between 2006 and 2011 after the TSA’s background check. The report said that of 25,599 foreign nationals checked in the FAA’s airmen registry, an unidentified number were not in the TSA’s Alien Flight Student Program database; that number does not include foreign nationals applying for a U.S. certificate based on a certificate issued by another country. An undisclosed number received their FAA airmen certificate without being successfully vetted or receiving permission from the TSA to begin training. The TSA could not explain why some slipped through the cracks.

The TSA has limited ability to get information from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to determine whether someone is in the country legally. A Boston-area investigation highlighted in the GAO report is a case in point.

At the school, 25 foreign nationals had been vetted and approved by the TSA to begin flight training, but ICE later found that eight had entered the country illegally and 17 had overstayed their authorized period of admission. Discrepancies between the TSA and ICE information highlighted that while the TSA’s records indicated that the foreign students’ information was legal at the time of vetting, ICE’s investigation showed that 16 of the 17 were not.

“It should be noted that the flight school completed its requirements and sent the necessary information to the TSA for a background check,” Zecha said. “Flight training providers cannot be expected to verify students’ visas.”

The report also states that the Boston flight school owner was in the country illegally, was a pilot, and was registered with the TSA as a flight training provider although he was not in the TSA’s system to be able to receive flight training. However, AOPA points out, the report leaves out crucial information.

“Yes, the flight school owner was a flight instructor and an ATP, but those two certificates do not require vetting through the TSA’s Alien Flight Student Program. We don’t know where his other training occurred or if he needed to go through the program,” Zecha said. “Customs and immigration should have been tracking him regarding his status in the United States. That’s not something flight schools are or should be required to do.”

AOPA works closely with the TSA and flight schools to help ensure that the agency receives the information needed to vet foreign students, and the association welcomes moves to improve inter-agency communication.

“The vetting process should be transparent,” Zecha said, “and we would appreciate any opportunity to help facilitate communication among the groups.”