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GAO study finds big holes in TSA’s vetting of foreign flight school applicants

The Transportation Security Administration is working to close significant holes in its security and immigration checks of foreign flight school applicants, said a study released on July 18 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In 2010, gaps in immigration information allowed 25 illegal aliens to get pilot training at a Boston area flight school that was operated by an illegal alien, according to the study. In March 2010, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigated a Boston-area flight school after local police stopped the flight school owner for a traffic violation. The police discovered he was in the country illegally, said the study.

After the incident, ICE launched a broader inquiry into the students enrolled at the flight school and found 25 of the foreign nationals at the school had applied to the Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP). Those applicants, it said, had been approved by TSA to begin flight training after their security threat assessment had been completed. ICE’s investigation and GAO’s subsequent inquiries found a number of problems, however.

The study said eight of the 25 foreign nationals who gotten TSA’s approval to begin flight training were in “entry without inspection” status, which meant they had entered the country illegally. Three of the aliens had obtained FAA airman certificates, while two held FAA private pilot certificates and one held an FAA commercial pilot certificate, it said.

GAO also found 17 of the 25 who had received TSA’s approval to begin flight training had overstayed their visas.

The 9/11 hijackers, three of whom attended flight school, had entered the U.S. with valid visas, but overstayed their authorized time.

After the attacks, Congress ordered TSA to do background checks of all foreign flight students who aimed to fly larger aircraft. GAO said, however, the current checks don’t begin until after the student has begun training.

News reports quoted GAO officials saying none of the 25 illegal aliens who attended the flight school appeared to be from Muslim countries. Instead, they had Latin American names, they said.

In addition, said the report, the flight school’s owner had two FAA airman certificates, but had never gotten a TSA threat assessment or been approved for flight training under the AFSP. The flight school owner was a certified Airline Transport Pilot (cargo pilot) and a Certified Flight Instructor.

The investigation, said GAO, resulted in TSA and ICE working on a joint test program to vet the names of foreign students against immigration databases. However, according to the GAO, the program lacks specifics like desired outcomes, time frames and specifically-tasked individuals who would be responsible for implementing it.

GAO recommended the two agencies develop the specifics that would facilitate checking TSA AFSP data against information DHS has on applicants’ admissibility status to help detect and identify violations, like overstays and entries without inspection, by foreign flight students, and institute the program if it is found to be effective. DHS said it was set to have a plan ready by this December to assess the results of the program with ICE. The plan is to include specific details on time frames and accountability and recommendations for next steps, said GAO.

The government watchdog agency said it believed the DHS/TSA plan was a “positive” development to address the weaknesses it found in its report, although it said it would continue to monitor the plan’s progress.