A report released by the Government Accountability Office this week found that even a decade after the September 11th terrorist attacks, flight schools remain a weak spot for national security- one that could be easily exploited by terrorist organizations.
In testimony before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Homeland Security, the Government Accountability Office said it found fault with TSA's Alien Flight Student Program, which attempts to establish whether foreign students hoping to enroll at U.S. flight schools are a security threat to the United States.The report cited a 2010 case from a Stow, MA based flight school that was run by an illegal immigrant and was certifying at least 25 other illegal immigrants as pilots. The owner, who was charged with overstaying his visa and ordered to return to Brazil in late 2010.
Before foreign nationals can begin flight training, the Alien Flight Student Program requires they undergo name- and fingerprint-based background checks. They also must submit security documents, such as a passport, said Kerwin Wilson, the TSA official who oversees the flight school screening program.
But according to the GAO, the Transportation Security Administration has failed to keep its database of these background checks up to date.
By cross-referencing the Federal Aviation Administration's database of registered pilots with similar information kept by the TSA's Alien Flight Student Program, the GAO found that some of about 25,000 foreign nationals registered with the FAA were missing from the transportation agency's database, the GAO's Stephen Lord told the committee.
Moreover, the Alien Flight Student Program does not determine whether these individuals are in the country illegally, Lord said.
When Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., asked at the hearing Wednesday whether an individual who was unable to board a commercial plane because he posed a threat to U.S. security could begin to learn to fly that same plane, officials from both the GAO and the TSA said yes.
The owner of the TJ Aviation Flight Academy and more than 30 students accused of being in the United States illegally received clearance to train as pilots despite strict security controls put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.The school's owner- Thiago de Jesus- denied in a Boston Globe interview that he was in the country illegally, but reportedly declined to show any documentation that would prove his claim. The majority of the students from TJ Aviation flight were also from Brazil.
Each of the three showed documents from the TSA approving pilot lessons through the federal agency's alien flight student program.
"If I was not supposed to do it, they were supposed to block everything and not give me permission. Not just me, but others," another said.
"You cannot start classes without clearance from the TSA," he said.
The findings came the within days of another security breach at an airport. On Tuesday, a fugitive pilot wanted in connection with the stabbing death of his Colorado girlfriend scaled the fence at a St George's, UT airport and attempted to steal a parked passenger plane before crashing while taxiing and before shooting himself.
Authorities were trying to determine just how Hedglin -- wanted in the murder of his girlfriend in Colorado -- gained access to the 50-passenger plane while the airport was closed, among other details.The 50-passenger Bombardier passenger jet was scheduled for a flight later on Tuesday when Hedlin gained entry. A SkyWest spokeswoman declined to state whether or not the aircraft was secured within FAA guidelines when it was stolen.
The short ride was jarring enough to collapse the plane's front landing gear as it careened over landscaping, crossed a road and hit a curb before crashing into cars in the parking lot, St. George police Capt. James Van Fleet said
SkyWest officials said the company deactivated Hedglin's access cards and put him on administrative leave after Colorado authorities named him a murder suspect, but declined to explain how he was able to steal one of their planes.