Potential terrorists could still learn to fly, and even to obtain a pilot's license without interference from US government agencies, highlighting Washington's failure to provide adequate protection in the skies.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported on security loopholes at 935 accredited American flight schools to the House Committee on Homeland Security.
The GAO presented its findings after cross-referencing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) database, which tracks all individuals who hold pilot's licenses, with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) database, which lists all pilots who have been subjected to a background check.
The result was “mind-blowing,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers. “I’m shocked to hear that someone on the no-fly list can be approved for flight lessons,” he noted, as cited by The Los Angeles Times.
The investigation has shown that individuals got pilot's licenses without being completely inspected by the country's security apparatuses.
Testifying before the committee, GAO director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues Stephen Lord was unable to guarantee that foreign terrorists are not currently enrolled in American flight school programs.
General Manager for General Aviation’s Office of Security Policy Kerwin Wilson told the committee chairman that the TSA was responsible for the uncertainty, because it is that agency’s responsibility to establish whether foreign nationals entering a flight program have come to the United States illegally or if they pose a threat to national security.
After 9/11, TSA founded the Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP) to screen non-US citizens in order to provide a threat assessment before an individual’s flight school clearance.
Yet somehow 26,000 foreign nationals who finished their flight lessons between January 2006 and September 2011, “ had not applied to the AFSP or been vetted by TSA before taking flight training and receiving an FAA airman certificate."
Furthermore, US Customs and Immigration found that illegal immigrants were being trained to fly.
In 2010, a Boston-area flight school trained 25 students who "consisted primarily of visa overstays and illegal aliens," according to investigator John Woods. The operator of the flight school was also undocumented.
The GAO has advised the Department of Homeland Security to close loopholes that allow foreigners to get flight training without being vetted.
"It is completely unacceptable that a decade after 9/11, [GAO] has uncovered weaknesses in our security controls that were supposed to be fixed a decade ago," remarked Rogers.
Right now, American citizens are screened against a terrorism list not when they apply for a pilot's license, but after their flight training. Around 600 U.S. citizens are on the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center no-fly list.