The Transportation Security Administration said yesterday that it expanded a program to conduct security checks that could affect more than 100,000 foreign students seeking flight training in the United States and U.S. certified pilots who are noncitizens.
Flight schools will be required to submit a photograph and a $130 fee for every foreign student pilot so the TSA can conduct a "security threat assessment." Until this week, the government had not required the photograph or the fee for the 30,000 noncitizens who apply to flight schools in the United States each year. The new security checks will also apply to an estimated 85,000 U.S. certified pilots who are resident aliens if they seek additional training that would change their certification.
The TSA's action aims to prevent foreign terrorists from using U.S. flight schools for training, as terrorists easily did before hijacking four commercial planes on Sept. 11, 2001, and crashing them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter said flight school employees will also be required to undergo "security awareness training" offered through a TSA online course that would teach employees how to recognize suspicious activity.
The new measures follow enactment of a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization law in December 2003 that transferred pilot security checks to the TSA from the Department of Justice. A law passed after the terrorist attacks had required security checks only for flight school students seeking to fly aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds, including large commercial airplanes.
"We've expanded the program so it applies to all non-U.S. citizens, regardless of what type of aircraft they're flying," TSA's Von Walter said.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents many flight instructors, criticized the new rules as bureaucratic and burdensome. The group said the measures will force flight schools to perform immigration and citizenship verification duties that the government should perform. Under the rules, flight schools would have to take a photo of each student and verify that the student's citizenship documents are authentic, then note that in a logbook.
"We have no problem with the intent of the law. It was created to make sure that foreign terrorists don't use our flight schools against us," said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the pilots group. "If TSA wants this, TSA should be doing it."
However, a group that represents flight schools said it welcomed the new rules, which substitute the logbooks for an earlier TSA proposal that schools keep citizenship records of students for five years. "We are pleased that the TSA agreed to this concept as it goes a long way towards easing the paperwork burden on the flight training community," Stan Mackiewicz, a lobbyist with the National Air Transportation Association, said in a written statement.
Dancy also said the pilots group opposes TSA's new requirement that all foreign-born legal residents who hold FAA pilot certificates undergo the security check if they seek to upgrade their license.
The new rules do not "acknowledge the security clearances they've already undergone to gain resident alien status," Dancy said.