- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Private planes can go aloft again over all but three U.S. cities tomorrow, but the general-aviation industry, already reeling from a post-Sept. 11 "catastrophe," fears being strangled by new restrictions.
A complete ban on private aviation was imposed after last month's terrorist attacks, inflicting losses of hundreds of millions of dollars on charter-plane services and other businesses dependent on small-aircraft operations.
Federal flight restrictions have since been gradually rolled back, but Congress concerned that terrorists who hijacked and crashed commercial jets Sept. 11 were trained at U.S. flight schools is moving to require high-level security clearances for student pilots.
At 7 a.m. today most Federal Aviation Administration restrictions are lifted for private pilots in Detroit, Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and San Diego. The Chicago and Orlando areas will be freed tomorrow from the most severe prohibitions, leaving only Washington, New York and Boston airspace closed to most private airplanes. Restrictions at 15 other cities were lifted last week.
Aviation Week magazine reported last week that 41,000 private airplanes were stranded by government orders grounding the entire civilian fleet, at a likely cost of $450 million.
"We face a catastrophe unlike any catastrophe ever faced," said Jim Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association. "It's as though a tornado hit these [general-aviation] airports. Not one tornado, but hundreds and hundreds of tornadoes."
Various measures now pending on Capitol Hill would require student pilots to pay for background investigations, obtain tamper-proof certification cards, or would fine flight schools that fail to check students' backgrounds.
Flight-school operators and instructors say they want to weed out terrorists, but feel that validating immigrants' character is a government job that should not be dumped on private firms.
"Unless a flight instructor who trained some of the hijackers had some inkling of malice by their students, they simply provided a professional service, as if they were instructors at a shooting range who would never be blamed if a student shot someone," said Sean Elliott, executive director of the National Association of Flight Instructors.
He said the nation's 16,000 flight instructors oppose restrictions that diminish "our freedoms of flight and passions of flying."
Warren Morningstar, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA), said Arizona and Minnesota flight schools rebuffed would-be hijackers seeking advanced training and reported them to the FBI.
"We frankly think the United States needs to fix government systems and decide who to allow into the country. Those systems should be updated and fixed before we look at anything involving flight schools," he said.
That position is not shared by many larger university-based aviation-training programs.
"Even before [Sept. 11], I was working to standardize how flight schools in general could screen candidates to see they had the right stuff and not just use the American Express card as the filter," said one flight-school executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He added that "none of the reputable schools ours included would take [a student] who wasn't sponsored by an airline."
At least four pending House bills and one already passed by the Senate would set up background investigations for some or all flight students.
The omnibus Aviation Security Act [S. 1447], passed by the Senate and awaiting House action, would apply only to pilots wanting to fly jets or train in large aircraft simulators.
If the House approves its companion bill introduced by Rep. Greg Ganske, Iowa Republican, the attorney general must probe the background of every alien and any other student the Department of Transportation designates.
H.R. 2988, sponsored by Rep. Peter Deutsch, Florida Democrat, would require all student pilots to carry a tamper-proof SmartCard certification valid for five years, showing approval of "an indices check" by the CIA, FBI and State Department. Applicants would pay up to $100 for investigation, and flight schools would face fines up to $7,000 for failing to double-check applicants against government databases, with schools subject to being shut down after three such failures.
Two other House bills, sponsored by Republican Reps. Ander Crenshaw of Florida and Michael N. Castle of Delaware, both call for flight students to pay for federal queries that include "evidence of espionage or terrorism."

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