Thursday, February 28, 2008

Alien Flight School Program: "9/11 Redux?"

Some of you may have seen a piece on ABC's World News Tonight last night about foreign student pilots training in the U.S. and alleged holes in the system that allow these individuals to take flying lessons without being checked. The memory of 9/11 was evoked and the name Mohammed Atta even made it into the piece.

Words like "TSA's enforcement is basically nonexistent," "Flight schools want the money to teach ‘em…then they just slip through the cracks," and "What happened in 9/11 (sic) we don't want to happen again…so something has to be done." were all uttered by a former FAA inspector Bill McNease in the piece.

Well, something has been done, is being done and will continue to be done. Here are the real facts behind the headlines:
  • Former safety expert McNease estimated that about 8,000 foreigners with FAA certificates were not initially checked under the Alien Flight School Program. After conducting an analysis the actual number is 857, not the estimated 8,000. These 857 individuals held certificates prior to 9/11. In 2006, all 857 were checked and not a single person posed a threat to national security.
  • Today, TSA checks EVERY foreign national that applies for flight training in this country or at FAA-certified facilities anywhere in the world. Flight schools are required to submit this application to TSA before training begins and our sister agency, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement checks individuals in the make sure these students are here legally and properly.
  • In addition to ICE's enforcement of immigration law, TSA inspectors have conducted 8,000 regulatory compliance inspections since 2005 to make sure flight schools, aren't "...gonna teach them how to fly and get their ratings and then they slip through the cracks." as the former safety inspector said.

In addition to all this checking of student pilots, we also know of the threat of already certified individuals. To address that threat we:
  • Check 800,000 people with active FAA pilot certificates against terror watch lists every single day of the year. That way if an individual is deemed to pose a threat to aviation by a law enforcement or intelligence organization, they will not be allowed to fly into, out of or over the U.S.
  • Check all master crew lists (that's cockpit crew, pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer) against terror watch lists to make sure the people flying commercial airliners don't pose a threat.

So, while thoughts of Atta flying around Florida pre-9/11 and former experts saying it's still happening are great for ratings, the TSA and our DHS partners are actively working to make sure that foreign flight students are getting the attention they deserve from us.