Report: Terrorists Could Be Learning to Fly at American Flight Schools

Someone on the No Fly List could potentially be cleared by TSA to learn to fly a plane.

Small airplane taking off on the runway
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More than a decade after 9/11, a new Government Accountability Office report has found significant loopholes that could allow terrorists to learn to fly in U.S. flight schools.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the TSA created the Alien Flight Student Program, a screening process that requires non-citizens or permanent residents to undergo a "security threat assessment" before being cleared to attend flight school.

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The government watchdog found that of the 26,000 foreign nationals who completed flight training in the U.S. between January 2006 and September 2011, "some … had not applied to the AFSP or been vetted by TSA before taking flight training and receiving an FAA airman certificate" and that others "had not been successfully vetted or received permission from TSA to begin flight training."

People in the country illegally are theoretically not allowed to be cleared to attend flight school, but the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has found flight schools that were training illegal immigrants. In 2010, ICE discovered that TJ Aviation, a Boston-area flight school, was training students who "consisted primarily of visa overstays and illegal aliens," according to John Woods, a top investigator for ICE.

Wednesday, Woods told the House Committee on Homeland Security that his agency has found "several other schools" in the past few years that were training illegal immigrants. "We do find problems," he said.

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Under current regulations, people who are on the No Fly List wouldn't necessarily be prohibited from learning how to fly a plane.

Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh grilled Kerwin Wilson, branch manager of general aviation at the TSA's Office of Security Policy & Industry Engagement, about its current policy.

"As things are today, could a typical person who would not be allowed to board a plane as a passenger be allowed to start training that would allow them to fly that commercial plane," Walsh asked.

"In theory, they could engage and do flight training," Wilson responded, but said there's a difference between learning how to fly a plane and becoming a commercial pilot. "When you talk about an individual being allowed to fly a commercial plane, it takes a very long time for an individual to get the type of rating to fly a multi-engine plane."

ICE's Woods said it's unclear whether the Alien Flight Student program would have nabbed the 9/11 hijackers, adding that other security check probably would have sent up a warning sooner.

"They'd be checked for a criminal history and on the terrorist screening database," Woods said. "If they had violations, they would not receive training today."

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Committee chairman Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers said, "it is completely unacceptable that a decade after 9/11, [the Government Accountability Office] has uncovered weaknesses in our security controls that were supposed to be fixed a decade ago."

"Here is what amazes me … we have cancer patients, Iraq war veterans, and Nobel Peace Prize winners all forced to undergo rigorous security checks before getting on an airplane," he continued. "At the same time, there are foreign nationals in the U.S. training to fly, just like Mohammed Atta and the other 9/11 hijackers did, and not all of them are necessarily getting a security background check."

Rogers and other committee members said the Department of Homeland Security has to work to close loopholes that allow foreign nationals to get flight training without being vetted, but Minnesota Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack acknowledged it's impossible to have a foolproof system.

"We will never have 100 percent security," he said. "But everyone needs to work closely together to find a common sense solution to this problem to make sure we never have a 9/11 again."

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com