TSA sticks to deadline for alien flight-training rule

 - December 19, 2007, 11:56 AM

What began as a straightforward interim final rule on alien flight training has caused heartburn at some general aviation groups. But the Transportation Security Administration refused to delay the October 20 start date for the rules that address aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or less.

The rule transfers the responsibility for background checks of aliens seeking flight training from the Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security and TSA.

While the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) called the rule good news for the general aviation industry, some other general aviation organizations argued it would adversely affect every flight school and CFI.

AOPA petitioned the TSA to suspend the October 20 compliance deadline for those sections of the interim final rule that apply to flight schools that provide, and individuals who apply for, flight training and recurrent training in the operation of aircraft with a mtow of 12,500 pounds or less.

Noting that AOPA does not oppose the intent of the rule, the association pointed out that the rule applies unnecessary training and burdensome recordkeeping requirements for every flight school and every instructor, whether or not they are training foreign students. “If that’s really the TSA’s intent, it’s gone too far,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer.

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) and the Helicopter Association International (HAI) have also raised questions about the interim final rule.

NATA acknowledged that switching background checking from the Department of Justice to the TSA is expected to increase the efficiency of the process, but the association expressed concern over the expansion of the requirements for flight-training providers to notify the TSA about foreign nationals seeking flight training, as well as the imposition of record-keeping and security training requirements.

In a message asking HAI members to submit comments on the interim final rule before the October 20 deadline, HAI director Patrick Corr wrote that the TSA’s definitions of “flight school” and “flight training” are so broad that they include every biennial flight review, every line-check, every hour of ground or simulator instruction and every rental check-out flight.

Implementation Plans
Aviation associations met with TSA officials on September 30 to discuss the rule and to voice several significant concerns, including concerns about the short timeline for implementation and privacy aspects of the rule, given that the flight-training provider must collect and maintain proof-of-citizenship documentation for all people seeking flight training.

The TSA accepted several action items from general aviation groups to clarify points the industry raised and has established a help desk to assist with implementation of the rule. The help desk can be reached at (703) 542-1222.

But NATA said that it does not expect to see any significant policy or schedule changes in future versions of the rule. The TSA said it was responding to a congressional mandate to check for terrorists among the foreign nationals applying for flight training in the U.S. The agency also said that it had to issue the rule without the conventional public review process to meet the deadline imposed by Congress.

But AOPA countered that the TSA went far beyond what Congress intended. “And it missed the deadline by seven months,” said Boyer. “If it can push its deadline that far, it can take additional time to consult with the industry and get a rule that is sound from a regulatory standpoint, meets congressional intent and protects the rights of all pilots living in the U.S.”

In the months following 9/11, Congress prohibited certain flight-training providers from giving training in aircraft with an mtow of 12,500 pounds or more to aliens and other designated individuals unless the training center notified the U.S. attorney general of the identity of the candidate seeking training. The attorney general would notify the flight school within 45 days of any potential threat that the alien student posed to aviation or national security. Flight-training providers complained the process took too long. GAMA was one of the associations that lobbied Congress to move the process to the TSA.

Balancing Fairness and Security
“This action by the TSA is good news for our industry,” said Ron Swanda, GAMA’s interim president. “The U.S. trains most of the world’s pilots and we want to ensure that this can continue safely and securely.” GAMA said it has worked closely with Congress, the TSA and the Department of Justice to strike a balance between imposing a burden on industry and recognizing necessary security precautions.
NATA  continues to be extremely concerned that the federal government is singling out the flight-training community and unfairly placing an administrative burden
on it.

Under the interim final rule, flight schools are prohibited from providing flight training to aliens and other individuals designated by the TSA unless the flight school or student submits certain information to the TSA, the student pays the specified fee to the TSA and the agency finds the student is not a threat to aviation or national security.

The rule establishes four categories of flight-training candidates and specific accompanying requirements for TSA notification and risk assessment application/processing, including fingerprinting.

• Category 1–flight training on aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds by candidates not previously certified in such equipment.

• Category 2–flight training on aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds by candidates who have been rated in that category of aircraft already.

• Category 3–flight training on aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or less. The TSA is requiring candidates in this category to be subjected to the more-than-12,500-pound risk-assessment process.

• Category 4–recurrent training on all aircraft.

Candidates who apply for recurrent training are exempt from the Category 1-3 threat-assessment requirements, although the flight school must provide notification of such recurrent training to the TSA.

The interim final rule also requires flight schools to provide security-awareness training for certain flight school employees and establishes standards and criteria for the training programs.