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AOPA continues battle against state pilot background checks, says INS visa fiasco shows fallacy of proposed lawsAOPA continues battle against state pilot background checks, says INS visa fiasco shows fallacy of proposed laws

AOPA continues to battle student pilot background checks now being proposed in several state legislatures. And AOPA is using the recent INS fiasco to illustrate to lawmakers that their proposed checks won't stop terrorists but will create unnecessary barriers and expense for law-abiding people who want to learn how to fly.

"This unbelievable government failure illustrates the absurdity of the student pilot background checks now being written into law in some states," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs. "If the federal government's own background checks leads to the issuing of visas to dead terrorists, then how in the world can individual flight schools be expected to ferret out the bad guys?

"The INS fiasco graphically shows that identifying terrorists is a federal government responsibility. And the feds need to fix their system now."

The nation was stunned when six months to the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service sent student visa approval forms for terrorists Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi to the Florida flight school where they had trained.

Both Atta and Al-Shehhi had entered the United States legally on business and tourist visas. At that time, neither was on a terrorist watch list, and both easily passed the background check conducted by U.S. embassies overseas. In August 2000, both applied to change their visa status to student so they could begin flight training. INS conducted a background check and approved the status change one year later. The two terrorists had already completed flight training by then. (It is legal for foreigners to begin educational programs once they've applied for a student visa.) INS sent the approval notice to the flight school on March 11.

AOPA is using this incident to continue lobbying against student pilot background checks or other flight school regulation bills now pending in the legislatures of seven states (Connecticut, Idaho, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, and South Carolina).

In its contacts with state lawmakers and governors, AOPA is reiterating that:

  • Regulation of aviation, including flight training, is a federal responsibility. Federal law, supported by numerous Supreme Court decisions, prohibits state and local governments from imposing laws at variance with federal regulations.
  • Background checks would not have prevented the terrorist attacks. The ringleaders had entered the United States legally and were not listed in any terrorist or criminal database.
  • If flight schools have to conduct background checks, they will ultimately have to access the same government databases that failed to list the September 11 attackers. And in fact, today flight schools are not authorized to access the NCIC, the national criminal database.
  • State-mandated background checks on student pilots will impose needless expense on flight schools and students, creating additional barriers to law-abiding citizens who want to learn how to fly.

AOPA is also reminding state lawmakers that recent federal law now requires that the U.S. attorney general approve flight training for non-U.S. citizens in aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds.

AOPA, along with other industry groups, has made numerous recommendations to the federal government to improve general aviation security, including a suggestion that the federal government provide a terrorist "watch list" to flight schools.

The association has also petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to require that pilots carry government-issued photo identification along with their pilot certificates.

The 380,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world's largest civil aviation organization. Some two thirds of the nation's pilots are AOPA members.

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