WASHINGTON – U.S. citizens who are on the government's list of people banned from flying because they're considered terror threats are not prevented from learning how to fly in schools around the country, according to government regulation.
Such a person may have to drive across the country to learn how to fly a plane because he or she would likely be stopped from boarding a commercial airliner. But the security checks put in place after the 9/11 attacks will not keep the person from receiving pilot training.
The security loophole was raised during a hearing Wednesday to examine the Homeland Security Department's programs to screen foreigners who want to attend flight schools in the U.S. Some of the 9/11 hijackers were able to learn to fly in the U.S. while living in the country illegally. The government put in several more layers of security after the attacks, and foreigners now receive criminal background checks and are screened against terror watch lists before they are allowed to begin training. U.S. citizens, however, are not subject to the same scrutiny.
"I was stunned. That just caught me completely off guard and I'm pretty angry about it," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said after the hearing. "Everybody should be concerned."
The government has other screening requirements for someone to receive a pilot's license or other certificate to fly a plane which include criminal background checks and screening against terror watch lists. But Rogers said if the government doesn't want someone on an airplane because he or she is a terror threat, there's no reason why that person should be allowed to learn how to fly.
Kerwin Wilson, the Transportation Security Administration official who oversees the flight school screening program, said he did not know whether an American on the no-fly list has actually undergone flight training in the past 10 years.
As it is, the TSA's program to screen foreigners has its own security loopholes, according to the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency.
The TSA screening program does not automatically determine whether a prospective flight student is in the U.S. legally, said Stephen Lord, who heads GAO's homeland security and justice programs. In 2010, law enforcement investigated a flight school in the Boston area and found that eight people at the school approved for flight training by TSA were in the country illegally, and 17 more had stayed in the country longer than they were allowed, Lord told lawmakers. The owner of the flight school was in the country illegally as well.
The TSA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have agreed to share more information with each other, officials from those agencies said.