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County considers extra checks of foreign flight students

REGION — Some of the San Diego County Supervisors and residents voiced skepticism of a proposed requirement for flight instructors to verify their screening of all foreign flight students to county authorities.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob brought forth the proposal after a 2012 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted weaknesses in the TSA’s (Transportation Security Information) efforts to check foreign flight students for security threats. The report revealed a lack of coordination between the TSA, FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), FBI, and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for vetting these students.

Moreover, two of the terrorists involved in carrying out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks are known to have trained at a flight school at Montgomery Field in San Diego.

Intending to cover the security gap left by federal requirements, Jacob had staff explore a way for the county to verify that flight schools and independent instructors were following all federal guidelines for screening foreign flight students.

Staff advised requiring all flight schools and instructors who use county airports to submit a form once each year confirming that they were following all prerequisite security evaluations of their foreign students.

The proposed ordinance was reviewed and unanimously rejected by all three of the county airport advisory boards late last year. It came before the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 5.

Some of Jacob’s fellow supervisors expressed doubt that signing a piece of paper annually would achieve enhanced security.

“I don’t see this as a significant increase of security for anybody,” said Supervisor Ron Roberts.

Supervisor Bill Horn said he shared some of the concerns voiced by pilots and flight school operators that the form would be an unnecessary hassle and redundant to the checks already required by federal agencies.

“I don’t want to put more requirements on businesses,” he said. “I just don’t see one bit of new safety here.”

Their concerns grew after county staff confirmed that they do not keep track of the hundreds of local independent flight instructors. Without knowing how many flight instructors use the county airports, staff acknowledged that it would be possible for some of these instructors to avoid following the ordinance unbeknownst to the county authorities.

Jacob acknowledged that the problem ultimately fell on federal agencies that are responsible for flight training regulations.

“If the problem today was fixed in Washington, we may not be here,” she said.

Yet, she emphasized that these agencies would not tell her if the oversight problems had been remedied since the GAO report, and said it would be in the best interests of the county to add another security check.

“(The form is) simple. It’s not adding bureaucracy. It’s not doing the job of the federal government,” she said. “We all care about our national security.”

Supervisor Greg Cox concurred, saying, “I think that after 9/11 no one wants to get into a state of hysteria, but we have obligations as the operator of airports.”

Despite some hesitancy about the effectiveness of the ordinance, all of the supervisors unanimously agreed to try the proposed form for one year. They agreed to pursue lobbying of the federal government to remedy the security weaknesses of the TSA, FAA, and other agencies properly vetting foreign flight students.


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