updated 10/22/2004 6:55:46 PM ET 2004-10-22T22:55:46

The federal government has begun conducting background checks on all foreigners seeking to attend U.S. flight schools, the Transportation Security Administration said Friday.

The expanded security measures, aimed in part at preventing potential terrorists from taking pilot lessons here as some of the Sept. 11 hijackers did, now apply to any foreigner seeking flight training in the United States, not just those learning to fly larger aircraft. As well, those who want to attend flight school for a second time — for certification to fly a different classification of aircraft, for example — will need to have their backgrounds checked again.

Previously, only those training on aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or more had their backgrounds checked.

“Fortifying security by knowing who trains at these schools is an integral part of our mission to secure the homeland,” said TSA chief David Stone, whose agency expanded the pool to include smaller aircraft on Wednesday.

The new rules follow the TSA’s takeover of the program from the Justice Department on Oct. 5. All foreign applicants, including certified pilots, will have to undergo TSA checks starting Dec. 19.

30,000 applications in 2003
The Justice Department has said 30,000 foreigners applied to U.S. flight schools last year.

Under the Justice Department program, they were required to provide fingerprints, passport and visa information and the type of training sought. Since the TSA took over, applicants have had to submit another set of fingerprints.

Terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, the only U.S. defendant accused of participating in the al-Qaida Sept. 11 plot, was arrested a month prior to the attacks when he aroused suspicions at a flight school. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers rented small aircraft several times in the summer before the attacks for practice flights.

TSA’s security checks do not apply to foreign students already in training or enrolled in flight schools, though they are required for pilots training for another level or type of aircraft.

That has raised financial concerns among U.S. schools training pilots for foreign airlines, said Steven Daun, director of career training at Aeroservice Aviation Center in Virginia Gardens, Fla.

“We understand the need for national security, but you can’t penalize the people who have already been cleared as not being a threat,” he said.

Foreign airlines moving training
This month, Daun noticed that foreign airlines have begun moving their flight training offshore to avoid a costly wait in the United States for another background check.

Though he agreed with additional scrutiny of individuals seeking pilot lessons, Daun argued that more security checks for many foreign airline pilots is needless since they have often already been fingerprinted and checked by their airline, for U.S. visas and by the Justice Department when it ran the program.

Other components of the new security assessments include a $130 application fee and requirements for flight schools to give TSA photographs of students and provide their own staff with annual security awareness training.

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