General Aviation Security:

Weaknesses Exist in TSA's Process for Ensuring Foreign Flight Students Do Not Pose a Security Threat

GAO-12-875: Published: Jul 18, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 18, 2012.

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Stephen M. Lord
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What GAO Found

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and aircraft operators have taken several important actions to enhance general aviation security, and TSA is gathering input from operators to develop additional requirements. For example, TSA requires that certain general aviation aircraft operators implement security programs. Aircraft operators under these programs must, among other things, develop and maintain TSA-approved security programs. TSA has also conducted outreach to the general aviation community to establish a cooperative relationship with general aviation stakeholders. In 2008, TSA developed a proposed rule that would have imposed security requirements on all aircraft over 12,500 pounds, including large aircraft that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) analysis has shown could cause significant damage in an attack. In response to industry concerns about the proposed rule’s costs and security benefits, TSA is developing a new proposed rule. Officials from all six industry associations GAO spoke with stated that TSA has reached out to gather industry’s input, and three of the six associations stated that TSA has improved its efforts to gather input since the 2008 notice of proposed rulemaking.

TSA vets foreign flight student applicants through its Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP), but weaknesses exist in the vetting process and in DHS’s process for identifying flight students who may be in the country illegally. From January 2006 through September 2011, more than 25,000 foreign nationals had applied for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) airman certificates (pilot’s licenses), indicating they had completed flight training. However, TSA computerized matching of FAA data determined that some known number of foreign nationals did not match with those in TSA’s database, raising questions as to whether they had been vetted. In addition, AFSP is not designed to determine whether a foreign flight student entered the country legally; thus, a foreign national can be approved for training through AFSP after entering the country illegally. A March 2010 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) flight school investigation led to the arrest of six such foreign nationals, including one who had a commercial pilot’s license. As a result, TSA and ICE jointly worked on vetting names of foreign students against immigration databases, but have not specified desired outcomes and time frames, or assigned individuals with responsibility for fully instituting the program. Having a road map, with steps and time frames, and assigning individuals the responsibility for fully instituting a pilot program could help TSA and ICE better identify and prevent potential risk. The sensitive security version of this report discussed additional information related to TSA’s vetting process for foreign nationals seeking flight training.

Why GAO Did This Study

U.S. government threat assessments have discussed plans by terrorists to use general aviation aircraft—generally, aircraft not available to the public for transport—to conduct attacks. Also, the September 11, 2001, terrorists learned to fly at flight schools, which are within the general aviation community. TSA, within DHS, has responsibilities for general aviation security, and developed AFSP to ensure that foreign students enrolling at flight schools do not pose a security threat. GAO was asked to assess (1) TSA and general aviation industry actions to enhance security and TSA efforts to obtain information on these actions and (2) TSA efforts to ensure foreign flight students do not pose a security threat. GAO reviewed TSA analysis comparing FAA data from January 2006 to September 2011 on foreign nationals applying for airman certificates with AFSP data, and interviewed 22 general aviation operators at eight airports selected to reflect geographic diversity and variations in types of operators. This is a public version of a sensitive security report GAO issued in June 2012. Information TSA deemed sensitive has been omitted, including two recommendations on TSA’s vetting of foreign nationals.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that TSA identify how often and why foreign nationals are not vetted under AFSP and develop a plan for assessing the results of efforts to identify AFSP-approved foreign flight students who entered the country illegally. DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations and indicated actions it is taking in response.

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Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better ensure that TSA is able to develop effective and efficient security programs for general aviation operators, the Administrator of TSA should take steps to identify any instances where foreign nationals receive FAA airman certificates (pilot's licenses) without first undergoing a TSA security threat assessment and examine those instances so that TSA can identify the reasons for these occurrences and strengthen controls to prevent future occurrences.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: In July 2013, the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) Office of Compliance completed a review and analysis of flight training providers identified as possibly providing flight training to foreign students without proper Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP) vetting. TSA's review of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records (from January through October 2012) against the AFSP database indicated that more than 7,000 had received pilot certifications from the FAA. Of those individuals who received FAA certificates, a certain number of them were potentially not vetted through the AFSP, while most of the population of pilots who received FAA certificates were vetted through the AFSP. As a result of this review, TSA issued warning notices to some flight schools. In September 2013, TSA told us that it expected to have a formalized process developed by December 31, 2013, that would allow TSA inspectors in the field to incorporate compliance checks as a regular part of normal inspectional work load. We are reviewing the information TSA provided to determine the extent to which it meets the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that TSA is able to identify foreign nationals with immigration violations who may be applying to the Alien Flight Student Program, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of TSA and the Director of ICE to collaborate to develop a plan, with time frames, and assign individuals with responsibility and accountability for assessing the results of a pilot program to check TSA AFSP data against information DHS has on applicants' admissibility status to help detect and identify violations, such as overstays and entries without inspection, by foreign flight students, and institute that pilot program if it is found to be effective.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2012, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told us that TSA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit (CTCEU) completed the pilot program and that TSA moved forward with a new process to check active alien flight students against several key databases to identify whether the individual may have overstayed the terms of his or her admission. Where such instances are identified, TSA said that it provides the results to CTCEU to take appropriate immigration enforcement action. According to TSA, if CTCEU identifies any issues, they notify TSA which in turn takes appropriate action with respect to aviation security. In July 2012, CTCEU officials had told us that this process was still in the testing phase. In May 2013, TSA stated that it implemented for all approved AFSP candidates an interface for automated daily comparisons to identify potential overstays. AFSP candidates who are identified as a potential "in-country overstay" are referred to ICE-CTCEU for further investigation. In January 2014, ICE-CTCEU stated that it has provided knowledge and experience to TSA in vetting, identifying, and apprehending those individuals who have been identified as having overstayed their terms of admission. According to ICE, it has also provided TSA with several suggestions and risk factors to be used in vetting AFSP applicants. Regarding "entries without inspection" (EWI) by foreign flight students, TSA said that it is working collaboratively with ICE-CTCEU and US-VISIT. TSA said that the agency is testing and evaluating an iterative approach to better identify AFSP candidates who are potentially in EWI status, and that next steps will be driven by the outcome of this evaluation. It remains unclear whether the database checks will allow TSA to determine whether someone may have entered the country illegally and what controls TSA has put in place to ensure that information is provided to ICE for enforcement action. Thus, we are requesting additional documentation from TSA regarding its assessment of the pilot and its referrals to ICE and will review it to determine whether the recommendation has been implemented.

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