County Board of Supervisors tentatively approve tighter regulations on foreign flight students

Proposal passes first step

SAN DIEGO - The San Diego County Board of Supervisors tentatively agreed Wednesday to require flight schools and instructors who teach foreigners to fly at county-run airports to annually certify they are complying with federal screening and vetting requirements.

If adopted in a second vote Feb. 26, the ordinance proposed by Supervisor Dianne Jacob on Sept. 11, 2012, would mandate operators who lease or sublease county property sign a statement each fiscal year, saying that guidelines for screening and monitoring foreign flight students are being followed to the best of their knowledge.

Violations of the ordinance could result in warnings, citations or schools being denied the use of county airports.

"We have more reason today than ever before to have this certification in place," Jacob said. "It's simple, it's not adding bureaucracy, it's not doing the job of the federal government."

A Team 10 investigation exposed the lack of background checks on student pilots, which raised concerns from county leaders.

The first 9/11 hijackers to arrive in the United States -- Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi -- settled in San Diego in January 2000 and took flight lessons at Montgomery Field. Hijacker-pilot Hani Hanjour arrived in December of that year.

Jacob's proposal was based on a 2012 U.S. General Accounting Office report that concluded the federal government did not adequately monitor foreign flight students, that foreign nationals were applying for flight certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration without being properly vetted and that there was little coordination between the Transportation Security Administration and immigration officials.

The proposed ordinance seeks to confirm that flight schools and instructors are following the law, but would not undermine federal authority.

"Here we are 13 years after 9/11 and the problems brought out in that GAO report in 2012 are still not resolved," Jacob said.

Advisory committees at three of the eight affected airfields -- the Fallbrook Airpark, Gillespie Field and McClellan-Palomar Airport -- each voted unanimously against Jacob's proposal at meetings in November.

Several members of the local airport industry also urged the board to withdraw the proposal.

Tom Hannawa, owner of American Aviation Academy at Gillespie Field, said hundreds of foreign pilots trained at the school, then returned home. Many were later employed by their national airlines.

His academy's compliance requirements have been overseen and monitored by several government agencies, he said, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the TSA, the FAA and the Department of Justice.

"The suggestion that we are illegally training foreign pilots is absurd," Hannawa said.

Flight instructor Jeff Warren said, "Flight training instructors don't suffer from lack of awareness of these requirements or awesome responsibilities, but withdraw this county ordinance, pending the results that have already been initiated by the DHS to fix identified weaknesses."

Robert Germann, who supports the proposal, added, "I don't care as a citizen whose responsibility it is. Our local jurisdiction acknowledged a problem and in their jurisdiction they're trying to fix it."

If approved, staff will review the ordinance in a year, work to make officials in other counties aware of it and increase advocacy at the federal level.

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