WASHINGTON — U.S. citizens who are considered a terror threat and banned from flying on passenger airplanes can nonetheless learn to fly without hindrance, a glaring loophole that emerged during a congressional hearing Wednesday into security lapses at the nation’s 935 accredited flight schools.
“I’m shocked to hear that someone on the no-fly list can be approved for flight lessons,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. “It is mind-blowing.”
U.S. citizens are screened against terrorism databases only after flight training, when they apply for a pilot’s license. More than 550 U.S. citizens are on the no-fly list, a database that is kept by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when al-Qaida terrorists who had attended flight schools in Florida, Arizona and Minnesota intentionally crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, security checks were added for people coming to the United States to enroll in flight schools. But those checks were never extended to U.S. citizens despite growing concerns in recent years about so-called “homegrown” terrorists launching attacks on U.S. soil.
U.S. flight schools are generally less expensive and more rigorous than those in other countries, and often enroll a large number of foreign students each year. About 30 percent of students enrolled in flight classes in the U.S. are foreign nationals.
An audit of the flight school screening program by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that existing measures are falling short. Investigators found that some foreigners had completed flight training without a full background check, and that some flight school students were in the country illegally.
“Foreign nationals obtaining flight training with the intent to do harm… could have already obtained the training needed to operate an aircraft before they received any type of vetting,” Stephen Lord, a GAO investigator, told the House panel.
Homeland security officials launched an investigation in 2010 after a Boston-area aviation school was found to have been training illegal immigrants to fly airplanes. Investigators so far have identified 30 people who may be in the country illegally and successfully attended flight schools. They are now under investigation for immigration violations.