ORMOND BEACH, Fla. — Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, government screening has made it harder for foreign students to enroll in civilian flight schools as a few of the hijackers did, banking on America being inviting and a place to learn quickly.
But the most rigorous checks don’t apply to all students and instructors, so schools and trainers have to be especially alert to weed out would-be terrorists.
“Prior to 9/11, I wouldn’t have had the phone number and name of my local FBI agent posted on my wall,” said Patrick Murphy, director of training at Sunrise Aviation in Ormond Beach, Fla., near Daytona Beach.
Hundreds of U.S. flight schools fiercely compete for students. In Florida, some still pitch the good weather as a way for students to fly more often and finish programs faster.
Florida schools have reason to be careful: Three of the 9/11 hijackers were simulating flights in large jets within six months of arriving for training in Venice, along the Gulf Coast. Mohamed Atta, the operational leader of the hijackings, and Marwan al Shehhi enrolled in an accelerated pilot program at Huffman Aviation, while Ziad Jarrah entered a private pilot program nearby.
Today, there is a stricter visa process for foreign students seeking flight training. They cannot start until the Transportation Security Administration runs a fingerprint-based criminal background check with FBI help and runs their names against terrorist watch lists. TSA inspectors visit FAA-certified flight schools at least once a year to check documentation and ensure students haven’t overstayed their visas.
However, TSA said the fingerprinting and criminal background checks completed on foreign students are not done on U.S. citizens and the checking against watch lists isn’t necessarily carried out before those students can start a program. There are numerous flight instructors with access to planes and simulators who don’t all get an annual TSA visit, and they are subject only to random TSA inspections if they train only U.S. citizens.
The shortcomings have led schools to self-police.
Andre Maye, vice president of administration at Phoenix East Aviation in Daytona Beach, pays attention to red flags including inconsistencies in applicants’ addresses and discrepancies on financial statements. He monitors the size of wire transfers from students when they pay for their tuition.
The safeguards haven’t deterred foreign students from flocking to the U.S. — Sunrise Aviation’s Murphy said the majority of students are international at many flight schools, including his.
The U.S. training industry is more developed and efficient than ones abroad, and while pilot hiring in the U.S. is stagnant, growth in Asia has created a need for pilots there.
Akshai Stephen, 27, of New Delhi, has been at Sunrise about five months. “What I thought was, ‘just tell the truth: I want to fly. I want to fly,’ ” he said. “If you are truthful and have good intentions, you have nothing to worry about.”