GAO Says Oversight Is Still Inadequate
The Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security, chaired by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), held a hearing entitled “A Decade After 9/11 Could American Flight Schools Still Unknowingly Be Training terrorists?” Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
At the hearing, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled “General Aviation Security: Weaknesses Exist in TSA’s Process for Ensuring Foreign Flight Students Do Not Pose a Security Threat.” Members had the opportunity to review the report’s findings on the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP).
"Created in direct response to 9/11, TSA's Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP) is meant to ensure that terrorists can never again exploit holes in our vetting and information sharing processes for training foreign nationals at flight schools in the U.S.," said Chairman Rogers (photo from YouTube video of the hearing). "Unfortunately, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently uncovered weaknesses in the AFSP which call into question the TSA's effectiveness at making sure foreign nationals training at U.S. flight schools do not pose a security threat. It is disturbing to learn we could still be vulnerable to the same actions the 9/11 hijackers took over a decade ago. This hearing will examine the findings and recommendations in GAO's new report."
In the report, the GAO found several problems with the agency's oversight of which foreign students are allowed to take flight training in the U.S. In March 2010, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigated a Boston-area flight school after local police stopped the flight school owner for a traffic violation and discovered that he was in the country illegally. In response to this incident, ICE launched a broader investigation of the students enrolled at the flight school. ICE found that 25 of the foreign nationals at this flight school had applied to AFSP and had been approved by TSA to begin flight training after their security threat assessment had been completed; however, the ICE investigation and subsequent inquiries revealed the following issues, among other things:
- Eight of the 25 foreign nationals who received approval by TSA to begin flight training were in “entry without inspection” status, meaning they had entered the country illegally. Three of these had obtained FAA airman certificates: 2 held FAA private pilot certificates and 1 held an FAA commercial pilot certificate.
- Seventeen of the 25 foreign nationals who received approval by TSA to begin flight training were in “overstay” status, meaning they had overstayed their authorized period of admission into the United States.
- In addition, the flight school owner held two FAA airman certificates. Specifically, he was a certified Airline Transport Pilot (cargo pilot) and a Certified Flight Instructor. However, he had never received a TSA security threat assessment or been approved by TSA to obtain flight training. He had registered with TSA as a flight training provider under AFSP.
The NBAA's Vice President, Safety, Security, Operations & Regulation Doug Carr (pictured) noted in his testimony that the industry's work with federal authorities to improve security at general aviation airports. For example, NBAA has partnered with the DHS and TSA in adopting a host of security enhancements and developing a list of Best Practices for Business Aviation Security to assist operators in complying with TSA regulations and maintaining safe and secure operations. Carr noted that the collaborative government-industry approach to security in the years since 9/11 has also been applied to TSA’s implementation of its program for screening student pilot candidates from other countries. “The goal of the program, we believe, is vital in protecting our national security,” Carr said. “While the program initially created a substantial burden for foreign citizens seeking flight training in the United States, recent program changes and continued feedback from the flight
training industry have produced improvements not only in the program, but also for the flight-training candidates."
Carr offered recommendations to bring further clarity and consistency to the program. For example, a security clearance could be assigned to an individual student for a certain length of time, rather than for specific training. "We believe that a candidate-centric review should suffice for a defined period of time, perhaps five years, regardless of the number of training events," he said.
Other recommendations included standardized guidance over the program, reducing confusion over individual inspector interpretations of the rules; and, eliminating the current duplicative process requiring both the owner and operator to submit candidates for clearance when dry leasing time in flight simulators.
“We strongly believe that the U.S. flight-training industry is the best in the world,” Carr said. “Thousands of jobs in the United States are supported directly from the flight-training industry and our policies and regulations should not only ensure that flight candidates do not represent a security threat to our nation, but also continue to appropriately support the U.S. as the preeminent flight training location.”