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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 2, 2008

Schumer Blasts TSA For Turning Blind Eye To Law Requiring Background Checks Before Foreign Students Can Attend Flight Schools - Leaves Same Gaping Hole Exploited By 9/11 Hijackers Wide Open


TSA Has Allowed More than 8,000 Foreigners to Attend Flight Schools who Should Have Been Barred, Allowing Flight Schools to Knowingly to Certify New Pilots who Have Never Been Cleared

More Than Six Years After 9/11, TSA Completely Asleep at the Switch on the Most Basic and Obvious Security Oversight Measures

With At Least 45 Flight Schools with Thousands Students In Tri-State Area, Schumer Calls for Federal Audit of TSA, New Fines and Beefed Up Security Checks to Ensure No One is Able to Slip Through the Cracks

Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer blasted the Transportation Security Administration for brazenly leaving one of the most obvious security holes, exploited by the 9/11 hijackers, wide open more than six years after the devastating attacks. Schumer will reveal that the TSA is failing its responsibility to ensure that foreign students attempting to attend flight schools undergo a federally mandated security check prior to enrollment and instruction.  As part of a new law passed after the 9/11 attacks, a TSA background check should be completed in advance of flight instruction; however many schools are enrolling these students before they have been cleared by TSA.  Right now, there are roughly 45 flight schools in the tri-state area. Not only have more than 8,000 foreign student pilots who have not been cleared by TSA been able to enroll and obtain pilot licenses, but also the agency is not going after the flight schools who train and certify new pilots without checking to make sure their students have the right documents.

“If there was ever a place for TSA to focus its efforts and beef up security, this one should be a no-brainer,” Schumer said. “It is simply unbelievable that TSA would look the other way on the gaping security loophole that led directly to the 9/11 attacks. Thousands upon thousands of people are attending flight schools and becoming pilots that legally should have never gotten through the front door without clearing the background check first. TSA is brazenly flouting the law and by doing that could be putting lives in danger. We need a full and independent investigation of the TSA to figure out why this is still happening and TSA must immediately crack down on any flight school that accepts a student without the proper documentation.”

Schumer today said that TSA has allowed thousands upon thousands of foreign student pilots to slip between the cracks and gain entry to American flight schools without adequate background checks. According to documents revealed earlier this week, more than 8,000 foreign students have applied for and gained entry to U.S. flight schools despite the fact that current federal law does not allow anyone to undertake a course of study at a U.S. based flight school without first being cleared by the TSA. The primary part of that clearance is an extensive security check against criminal and terrorist watch lists.   

However, Schumer said that TSA has repeatedly lapsed in its oversight of this process and schools have enrolled and instructed students that have not been cleared by the agency.  One former FAA official has described TSA’s enforcement as “non-existent” since so many students have slipped through the cracks and made it into flight school without a full background check and proper visa documentation.   

In 2003, after it was discovered that several of the 9/11 hijackers secretly trained at flight schools within the United States , Congress passed a package of federal laws as part of the FAA Reauthorization bill, Vision 100, that created the “Alien Flight Student Program” which barred foreign students from attending flight school until they cleared the TSA security check. The flight school must verify that the candidate is either not subject to the background check requirements (because he or she is a U.S. citizen or national) or has been cleared by the TSA before training covered under this requirement is initiated.  TSA is responsible for overseeing this entire process to be sure that candidates are not enrolled without proper clearance. 

To make matters worse, many reports have indicated that flight schools are also enrolling students without even checking whether the student holds a correct visa for flight school.  Reports suggest that at least some flight school students are using “B” visas, typically used for business and tourism – and not the proper “M” or “J” visas for vocational training or -- to enroll in these programs.  The B visa allows for an exemption from the Student Exchange Visitor Information system, which tracks foreign students throughout their time in the U.S.   The system is an important security measure because it keeps track of whether or not a student reports for classes, if he changes his intended study course, and if he drops out of the study program. One of the schools that has recently been investigated for allowing foreign students to enroll without the proper documentation was attended also by 9-11 hijackers Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi.

Schumer said these gaping loopholes have allowed thousands of foreign students to attend flight schools that should have been barred. “This simply boggles the mind, and if it wasn’t so serious, it would be funny,” Schumer added.

Right now, there are at least 45 flight schools operating in the tri-state area with 18 in New York State , 19 in New Jersey , and 8 in Connecticut .

Schumer today blasted the TSA for failing to do even the most basic security checks and turning a blind eye to federal law that explicitly requires them to check ensure that a background check has been completed prior to enrollment of a foreign student. Schumer called for a Government Accountability Office investigation and audit of the TSA’s program to screen foreign student who want to attend flight schools in the U.S. Schumer today unveiled a three point plan to close this gaping security hole:

1.      Spot/Targeted Inspections -- In letter to FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell and TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, Schumer called for an across the board audit and cross check of FAA certification records with TSA records indicating who’s actually completed the background check and those who may have been approved without the proper documents. This way TSA will know exactly which schools have people enrolled who should have never been cleared. 

2.      Fines for Schools that Knowingly Accept Barred Students – Schumer said he will push for the imposition of tougher fines for any school that is found to knowingly accept a foreign student who should never have been certified. Right now the FAA and TSA can levy general civil fines ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 depending on the size of the school.  However Schumer plans to beef up these fines and add the power to levy criminal fines as well.   

3.      New Universal Background Checks – Right now, Schumer said there is no background check for anyone who can show documentation that proves they are a US citizen or national. Schumer today called on TSA to do a background check on everyone who applies to be able to go to flight school to weed out anyone who may use a forged document.

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