NATA, AOPA challenge visa rules for pilot trainees

 - September 14, 2006, 7:10 AM

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) and AOPA are taking issue with the State Department over proposed changes to the Exchange Visitor Program and J-1 visas that the two organizations contend will adversely affect flight schools and– ultimately–flight safety.

NATA said the proposed changes present several practical problems for flight training. First is the requirement for an in-person interview with potential trainee in their home country. NATA pointed out that the costs in both dollars and human resources to travel worldwide for interviews are prohibitive for most flight-training facilities.

Further, the proposed rule also seeks to require three years of related work experience before a trainee’s acceptance into the Exchange Visitor Program. “Trainees using the Exchange Visitor Program typically come to the U.S. to pursue flight training due to the high level of training expertise available in the U.S. and, therefore, ease of transference of licenses from the U.S. to home countries and the significantly lower cost of flight training in our country,” NATA said.

“Therefore, these students often arrive in the U.S. with no or very little aviation experience. Requiring three years of related work
experience would render this program totally useless to the flight-training industry.”

AOPA expressed similar concern. According to the association, “That would defeat the purpose of the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program,” AOPA said in its objection filing. “If foreign nationals already had three years of pilot experience, they would not need to come to the U.S. for flight training because they would more than likely already have pilot jobs in their home countries.”

Economic Impact

AOPA said the new regulations could put nine flight schools that specialize in training foreign students out of business. In addition, it said the changes would make it nearly impossible for foreign students to complete training that would allow them to get flying jobs in their own countries.

“The State Department blatantly disregarded the devastating economic consequences to flight schools and improperly certified that the proposal would not have a significant impact,” said Melissa Rudinger, AOPA vice president of regulatory affairs. “They didn’t even talk to the schools involved.”

In its objection to the proposed changes, AOPA pointed out that unlike other foreign students, flight students have to pass security checks by the Transportation Security Administration. While there have been abuses of the Exchange Visitor Program, AOPA pointed out that none of the problems government reports cited were related to flight-training programs. And because foreign flight students are subjected to so many security checks, the “Department of State’s security concerns…are unfounded and lack merit.”

NATA said that the State Department’s attempt to apply to a field as specialized and regulated as flight training the same criteria that would be applied to a less specialized and regulated field such as agriculture “is ludicrous.”

It added that the proposed changes will cripple the flight-training industry’s ability to use the Exchange Visitor Program and pose detrimental consequences for the aviation industry and flying public worldwide.

NATA said that the typical pilot candidate arrives in the U.S. with no or very little aviation experience and proceeds to obtain several FAA certificates and ratings up to CFI. The existing program allows trainees one year of on-the-job training, typically in the form of flight instruction. The proposed rule would allow for only one month of practical training per three months of classroom training.

This allows a pilot trainee to act as a flight instructor for only three months in the U.S., forcing the student to return home with hundreds of hours less experience than the current program allows.

“This new limitation on practical training time could have drastic effects on the safety of the flying public worldwide,” said NATA.