Sen. Charles Schumer charged Sunday that federal authorities are failing to ensure that foreign students attending U.S. flight schools undergo required background checks.
"This is 9/11, or at least the failure that led up to 9/11, all over again," said Schumer, a New York Democrat.
A law passed after the 2001 terrorist attacks requires Transportation Security Administration background checks in advance of flight instruction, but Schumer said that many of the more than 3,500 flight schools in the United States are enrolling foreign students before they have been cleared.
A TSA spokesman denied that the agency was lax with background checks.
"Each and every foreign national that applies for flight training at any FAA-certified school anywhere in the world is checked by TSA prior to beginning that training," said the spokesman, Jon Allen.
He said the TSA has conducted more than 8,000 inspections at flight schools and works closely with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to ensure only properly checked, legal aliens are attending flight schools.
Sen. Charles SchumerBut Schumer said at a news conference at his Manhattan office that TSA enforcement is spotty and inadequate. He claimed that more than 8,000 foreign student pilots who have not been cleared by the TSA had been able to enroll and obtain pilot licenses.
"If there was ever a place for TSA to focus its efforts and beef up security, this one should be a no-brainer," Schumer said. "It is simply unbelievable that TSA would look the other way on the gaping security loophole that led directly to the 9/11 attacks. Thousands upon thousands of people are attending flight schools and becoming pilots that legally should have never gotten through the front door without clearing the background check first."
In a letter to Federal Aviation Authority Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell and TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, Schumer called for an audit and cross check of FAA certification records with TSA records indicating who has completed the background check and who may have been approved without the proper documents.
Schumer also called for tougher fines for any school that knowingly accepts a foreign student who should not have been certified. Right now the FAA and TSA can levy civil fines ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 depending on the size of the school.
Schumer also argued the TSA should do a background check on all flight-school applicants to weed out anyone who may have used a forged document.
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