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

Thursday, February 28, 2008

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 U.S.to 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.

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous on

So tell me since I am one of the 800,000 people in this country who hold a pilots certificate, just how would I be prevented from departing in my aircraft from an uncontrolled or private field if for some strange reason I was determined to be a threat?

Small aircraft are not a threat, larger ones may be in the wrong hands. Since the TSA has no presence at airfields that do not have scheduled airline flights how could the TSA possibly provide any level of protection. Foreign pilots fly into this country every day. Are they checked dailty?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Christopher,

The ABC News spot highlights an interesting point: Many news organizations are quick to feature comments from alleged experts in the field, but many of these "experts" either have some type of ax to grind against the subject of the spot or are looking to advance their new careers as professional talking heads.

H

Submitted by Anonymous on

@anonymous - 12:48pm:
If i'm not mistaken, that "expert" Bill McNease was fired by the FAA (for reasons unknown...)

Submitted by DoogieSD on
So tell me since I am one of the 800,000 people in this country who hold a pilots certificate, just how would I be prevented from departing in my aircraft from an uncontrolled or private field if for some strange reason I was determined to be a threat?"

And what if Giant turds attacked Chicago flying ultra-lites that took off from underwater bases? Do you want the TSA to have a plan for that too?

God will you people get a grip with your adolescent taunting? The TSA is like any other Government bureaucracy.. some parts it works, most parts it needs improvement but not at the hand of your belittling comments and 'gotcha games'. T-r-y being constructive..

6+ years and no CONUS attacks from a motivated enemy, doesn't that mean anything to you? To me it does.. they are doing a great job!

And this coming from a private pilot that flies 100k+ miles (commercial) annually..
Submitted by Fred G on

While there may not be 8000 foreign flight school students enrolled today, there were certainly a lot more than 875 prior to 9/11. And they didn't all fly jetliners into Manhattan skyscrapers, either. They were perfectly legitimate people trying to get on with a career in aviation, and they brought revenue to these shores. The USA has long been a training ground for aviators the world over because we have fewer flight restrictions than Europe, for instance.

There are many, many small businesses that make a living teaching people how to fly, and eventually it spreads into aircraft sales, aircraft maintenance, etc. Another reason why we remain the best country in the world. And our former supremacy in the aviation area (now gone to others for a variety of reasons) is something we ought to strive to gain back..

I'm not sure that the correct response for TSA here shouldn't be to take ABC to task (publicly) The First Amendment is one thing, but there is no Constitutional provision that requires government to "button it up" when the opponent is just plain wrong, which is clearly the case here. I find it pathetic that this 6th grade piece of reporting required three reporters to churn out this meager piece of sophistry. (How many reporters does it take to change a light bulb?)

More importantly, TSA should not rush around trying to plug the holes induced by every piece of witless criticism. Just respond to the stuff that is warranted.

The bad guys here are not the TSA, not the flight schools nor foreign students (in all probability) but rather the press. They just don't know what the hell to do when they don't have a crisis - so they make one. And for you historians out there, go read Alan Dershowitz' new book called "Finding Jefferson" there's a very interesting debate between John Adams and Jefferson on the issue of the accountability of free speech. But none of our founding fathers would have endorsed the principle that lies should go scott free.

So while we may not be able to do much else, maybe we should all boycott ABC and just "pay 'em no mind!"

Fred G.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Is the same watchlist being used to monitor pilots that travelers with similar names or aliases to suspects on the watchlist but not birthdates, ages, SSN, places of birth have to jump through hoops to even travel.

Then these innocent people have to use the media and/or contact there congressperson to get there name off the list because the process that DHS/TSA/CIA/NSA,etc doesnt work to get them off the list. perfect examples would

Retired Major General Vernon Lewis, Jr
http://www.9news.com/news/printarticle.aspx?storyid=80962

Babies,infants, young children on no fly list
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10725741

Then if these people are so dangerous why arent thye arrested and charged with a crime before they ever even get to the airport. If they arent dangerous they should be able to travel without having to prove there not a threat and have there name removed without jumping through hhoops. A little bit of risk assesment and threat analysis would go a long way to keeping innocent people from being caught in a net that has been cast very far and wide.

Submitted by Christopher on

Not to hijack my own thread but.

Anonymous said, "these innocent people have to use the media and/or contact there congressperson to get there name off the list because the process that DHS/TSA/CIA/NSA,etc doesnt work to get them off the list. perfect examples would be..."

These are great examples of misidentifications. There are no 5-year-olds or retired Generals on our watch lists. Today the airlines match names to lists. Some do great, some don't, all keep real no-flys off airplanes.

We're moving towards TSA matching names for all airlines through Secure Flight. Many, many less misidentifications and letting the General and junior check in on-line or at kiosks.

Stay tuned for future news on Secure Flight and misidentifications.

Christopher
TSA Evolution Blog Team

Submitted by Txrus on

Christopher said:

We're moving towards TSA matching names for all airlines through Secure Flight. Many, many less misidentifications and letting the General and junior check in on-line or at kiosks.

Stay tuned for future news on Secure Flight and misidentifications.
*********************************

Christopher-you're missing the point to anonymous 3:38 post-if these people, on your 'No-Fly List' are so dangerous, arrest them, charge them w/a specific crime, & then put them on trial in a court of law.

Anything less is just a sham & waste of both my tax dollars & '9/11 security fees' I am forced to pay with every plane ticket I buy.

Submitted by Anonymous on

How much of the work load is the TSA expecting to foist off on thee OPM in order to implement grandiose background check schemes like Secure Flight?

Will Secure Flight be well defined, or will it be just like the TWIC with definitions and requirements constantly changing so that nobody knows if they need it or not?

Thank you,
Possible American citizenstudent pilot

Submitted by Anonymous on
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.

Hmmm, how many people are required to daily check up on 800,000 flight certificates? A better idea is to put the information into a database, daily input the list of bad guys and see if anyone new drops out. This might take 15-20 minutes of computer time if you have a slow PC. If you meant that you already do the database search then the statement reflects an unintended exaggeration of computer time/human effort especially if the computer generates the paper report, sends it to the proper authorities and all without human intervention.

I fail to see how flight schools fall within the realm of TSA's responsibilities. FAA, yes, DHS, yes, ICE, yes, TSA, no. So what do you do with the students? Perhaps take away their water containers, make them remove their footwear, and empty their pockets of all metal objects before they enter the classrooms?

As to the x-ray machines, all that they do is to display a relative absorbtion of the materials being x-rayed. A neutron back scatter would identify all materials, but those are very $$$$$ and difficult to operate.
Submitted by Anonymous on

Christopher

I beg to differ on your opinion on the matter in that if you read the articles/links i posted in my original comment; those are examples of people caught up in dragnet of the no fly list because of the "out of a abunence of caution" that has been extended to similar names which causes alot of pain when they travel. Dont post and say they( Retired Maj Generals and kids) arent on the list when they are and its well documented. Do a google or yahoo search there are plenty of links pointing to stories. Even closer to me/home i have a friend that got the same treatment as well because his name is similar to someone on the list. I will hold my tongue on that issue because it would never make it through the anti-first amendment filter on this blog.

Then you still didnt address the second part of my post in about if these individuals are so dangerous why havent they been hunted down,arrested and sent to prison if they are that much of a threat.

Submitted by JGY on

Just a couple unofficial comments from your friendly neighborhood TSA regulatory inspector for aviation/surface.....A. 800,000 people are checked everyday in a manner consistent with efficient use of time and dedication to thoroughness. Noone sits in a room with a pencil going down a typed sheet of names. B. The consequences of being identified as the person on a no fly list when you are not actually that person are much less draconian than seems to be thought amongst some of the general public. C. In simple terms, flight schools fall within the realm of TSA Regulatory offices around the country because of 49CFR1552. There are other underlying reasons but that is the main one. D. TSA has presence at small airfields that do not have scheduled airline flights through the Security Guidelines for General Aviation Airports program, a not too highly publicized endeavor but one that has become very effective in aligning the genarl aviation community ( a very astute, security conscious group) with TSA's efforts foster security awareness. E. more to follow

Submitted by Anonymous on

DoogieSD said...
So tell me since I am one of the 800,000 people in this country who hold a pilots certificate, just how would I be prevented from departing in my aircraft from an uncontrolled or private field if for some strange reason I was determined to be a threat?"

And what if Giant turds attacked Chicago flying ultra-lites that took off from underwater bases? Do you want the TSA to have a plan for that too?

God will you people get a grip with your adolescent taunting? The TSA is like any other Government bureaucracy.. some parts it works, most parts it needs improvement but not at the hand of your belittling comments and 'gotcha games'. T-r-y being constructive..

6+ years and no CONUS attacks from a motivated enemy, doesn't that mean anything to you? To me it does.. they are doing a great job!

And this coming from a private pilot that flies 100k+ miles (commercial) annually..

You're absolutely right. NO planes have come down since TSA has been in existence. We may not be perfect but we ARE keeping the flying public safe. But its comments like these that my job worth it. Thanks.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Originally posted by jgy
The consequences of being identified as the person on a no fly list when you are not actually that person are much less draconian than seems to be thought amongst some of the general public.


You try having to wait in long lines to checkin because you can't checkin online or at kiosks, and then having your ID whisked away by airline which will result in an unknown delay. Some no-fly victims have been detained by law-enforcement and have missed their flights. Delays can range from minutes to hours. The government does nothing to help them and usually denies they are even on a blacklist. The so-called redress process is almost always a black hole that is no help.

Blaming the airlines is a red herring; the TSA forces the airlines to use this un-American blacklist. Turning the process over to TSA will likely result in more harassment and worse treatment for false matches, because TSA will likely assume that anyone with a name and DOB match to the actual no-fly (which will still occur with common names) is definitely the target.

Pure and simple, these no-fly-list victims are being denied the right of free movement, the right of due process, and basic common decency.

Anyone who passed a junior-high civis class would know that such behavior is unethical, illegal, and unconstitutional. IMO every airline agent, airline manager, TSA employee, TSA manager, and federal or local law enforcement agent, who has ever been involved with the no fly list concept or implementation or who has delayed an innocent no-fly victim for more than 30 seconds, should be terminated with prejudice, have their pension revoked, be subject to lawsuits for compensation from no-fly victims, be subject to public outing in the media, and be banned from public service for life. The whole blacklist concept is really that bad IMO.
Submitted by Neil on

@anonymous – 2:55pm said:
IMO every airline agent, airline manager, TSA employee, TSA manager, and federal or local law enforcement agent, who has ever been involved with the no fly list concept or implementation or who has delayed an innocent no-fly victim for more than 30 seconds, should be terminated with prejudice, have their pension revoked, be subject to lawsuits for compensation from no-fly victims, be subject to public outing in the media, and be banned from public service for life. The whole blacklist concept is really that bad IMO.

So, let me get this straight. You want to blacklist the people responsible for the “blacklist”?

So is your recommendation that there be no “list” and we let everyone board an aircraft? Do you want to be the guy seated alongside of the next Muhammad Atta?

I think the traveling public supports the idea of having a list of people that are known terrorists and that these known terrorists should not fly on commercial aircraft. How we build and maintain that list is another topic entirely – but, with all due respect, to not have a list at all seems a little crazy to me.

-Neil
TSA Blog Team

Submitted by Anonymous on
Originally posted by Neil:
So is your recommendation that there be no “list” and we let everyone board an aircraft? Do you want to be the guy seated alongside of the next Muhammad Atta?

I think the traveling public supports the idea of having a list of people that are known terrorists and that these known terrorists should not fly on commercial aircraft. How we build and maintain that list is another topic entirely – but, with all due respect, to not have a list at all seems a little crazy to me.


How can someone be too dangerous to allow on a commercial aircraft, but "safe" enough to allow to roam the streets? Philosophically, I’m safer sitting next to the next Atta on an aircraft where he has been screened for weapons than I am standing next to him on the subway or in the grocery line.

IMO the only "list" should be the NCIC or such a database. If someone already inside the USA is a criminal or suspected criminal (conspiracy to commit terrorism is a crime) and too dangerous to allow to move about the country, then they should be arrested, tried in a court of law with all the due process and presumption of innocence that that entails, and then, presumably, convicted and thrown in prison for a long time. Denying them air travel with no due process just makes no sense.

Repeatedly harassing innocent Americans with names similar to those of suspected terrorists serves no purpose and fails to prevent the stated threat. The no-fly list is easily circumvented in several ways, including 1) ID is not required to fly; you can just take the SSSS, 2) Any college-kid who wants to drink can get a decent fake ID, 3) there exist several published protocols for passing the checkpoint and boarding a plane by combining a real boarding-pass in a fake name, a fake boarding pass in a real name, and a real ID matching the no-fly list.


So, let me get this straight. You want to blacklist the people responsible for the “blacklist”?


I think the idea of the blacklist is so abhorrent and anti-American that we cannot trust these people and should not give them any power. I think they must be held responsible for their actions, and that we must make an example to warn future generations of the dangers of well-meaning but poorly-executed knee-jerk reactions. Furthermore, the innocent victims of this ill-conceived program need compensation and some sense of justice.
Submitted by Jay on
doogie's post:
And what if Giant turds attacked Chicago flying ultra-lites that took off from underwater bases? Do you want the TSA to have a plan for that too?

Actually...

I'm just kidding, we don't have a plan for that (yet). I saw this post and just had to comment :)

6+ years and no CONUS attacks from a motivated enemy, doesn't that mean anything to you? To me it does.. they are doing a great job!

Noted and appreciated by the team!
Submitted by Johnny on

Is there any thought on the threat which very light jets (VLJ) might pose? These aircraft are just coming out and seems they could pose some additional risk.
Thank-you!

Submitted by S Anthony on

Flight schools, airmen certificates and all aviation regulations are, and should remain the exclusive domain of the FAA.

If someone is lawfully admitted to this country with a student visa, passes a basic background check (done in conjunction with their visa application), and enrolls in a FAA certified flight training program, that is more than sufficient.

This 9/11 hysteria needs to end. Continuing to rally the troops around this singular threat, while ignoring cargo and advanced screening technologies is not laughable - it's downright dangerous. Grow up - the world is not brimming with people waiting to fly aircraft into buildings. It IS brimming with people who are analyzing our various weaknesses and considering how to take advantage of them.

The TSA needs to keep its hands off General Aviation and work on perfecting its basic mission - or be prepared to be swept away and replaced with an organization more committed to intelligent, functional, and effective aviation security.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Why don't we simply fix the problem by saying "No foreigner learns to fly in the U.S..... PERIOD!" Why take the chance that we will be, once again, training someone to harm us? If they want to learn to fly, they can learn in their own damn country.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Students are learning to fly all over the world! Who's watching them?!

Submitted by Jane on

Are you doing anything additional thing to focus on foreign students? Most of the time they will be targeted if anything wrong happens.

Submitted by Bill McNease on

Well Mr. Anonymous, this is Bill McNease and I was not fired from the FAA. As a matter of fact, I retired from the FAA. Get your facts straight. My facts were straight and I have the written proof of those facts.