Foreign flight students closely monitored since 9/11
Tighter security adds expense to schools
NOGALES — America offers cheaper flight schools and more space for training than Rahul Gandhi could get in his native India, where he hopes to work as a commercial pilot.
Now a student at Tiffin Aviation Services after attending flight schools in California and Texas, Gandhi’s trip to the U.S. involved much more than applying to schools, obtaining a visa and paying his tuition.
He provided fingerprints for a Transportation Security Administration database and underwent a background check to ensure that he had no connections to terrorist groups. Upon his arrival, the flight school provided his picture to the TSA to compare against a picture Gandhi provided.
The TSA checks his visa status each time he moves on to another skill level.
“They are strict,” Gandhi said.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, foreign flight students weren’t watched as closely. One of Arizona’s most haunting connections to 9/11 is the fact that at least one hijacker received flight training in the state, while others trained elsewhere in the U.S.
The federal government has since tightened screening of international flight students to make sure that doesn’t happen again. That means people like Larry Tiffin, who owns the flight school Gandhi is attending, have to monitor international students much more closely.
“It has added another level of expense to the business that we didn’t have before,” Tiffin said.
Once Tiffin receives word that an international student wants to train at his school, he has to wait until the student is cleared by the TSA, which usually takes about a month.
He then has to keep detailed records of the student’s training and must report any strange or dangerous behavior. Tiffin’s school is subject to four TSA inspections each year to make sure foreign students are in the country legally and have visas required for flight training.
“It’s not really difficult – just one more layer of paperwork,” he said.
Tiffin said he and other instructors also took a course required by the TSA that helps them recognize potentially dangerous behavior.
“I think the real solution to the problem is being more proactive if you’re suspicious,” Tiffin said.
The general requirements for keeping track of foreign students came under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. The TSA issued a rule in 2004 establishing the program through which all foreign flight students are screened before they’re allowed to train.
Bob Rockmaker, president of the Flight School Association of North America, said the regulations have made everyone in the industry more alert when it comes to detecting strange or dangerous behavior in students.
“The level of security awareness and the day-to-day process is greatly improved versus a decade ago,” he said.
Even with additional security measures, Tiffin said there are still several areas in need of improvement.
International students, he said, may be able to change flight schools if their visas are still good, or they could go to a private instructor under the TSA’s radar.
“There wouldn’t be anything to catch that,” he said.
Potential holes in the regulations put more responsibility on flight schools, and Rockmaker said it’s important for government agencies and flight schools to work closely together.
“We all work together toward that common goal of maintaining the highest level of security,” Rockmaker said.
Tiffin said the combination of tougher screening and vigilance makes him think a repeat of 9/11 isn’t likely.
“There’s probably a greater chance that they’d be able to detect something that’s out of the ordinary,” Tiffin said.