© Embry-Riddle Auronautical University
An easy approach to training
There seemed nothing unusual when five young, ambitious men whose passports showed them to be citizens of various Middle Eastern countries started their pilot training at different flight schools in Florida and California in the first half of 2000. The USA, particularly Florida and Arizona, where a sixth member of the group had gained a flying licence a few years earlier, were the prime training location for aspiring pilots around the world.
Open airspace, stable weather, low fuel cost, no landing fees, fewer operational restrictions and generally a much more open, welcoming attitude towards general aviation than in Europe, for example, were also the main reasons why many international airlines conducted their practical flight training in the USA.
But this attitude changed when, more than a year later, the six men, along with 13 others, used their skills to fly hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (and, had they succeeded, Congress). The US authorities cracked down on foreign nationals applying for flight training with increased security and personal background checks. Although the pilot academies adapted to the regulatory changes, the post-9/11 economic downturn left its mark on the flight training business.
Before the terror attacks, aspiring pilots needed only a medical from the Federal Aviation Administration, which automatically served as a student pilot licence, and a travel visa to begin training at a US flying school. For European citizens, for example, this could even be done on a 90-day tourist visa, completed on arrival with no previous contact with US immigration authorities. Other than the physical assessment and associated paperwork with the FAA medical examiner, which could be completed in the student's home country, there was no need for them to notify any US administration of their intention to learn to fly.
Under the post-9/11 Aviation and Transportation Security Act, however, trainee pilots need to have a visa just like students who enrol on courses at academic colleges or universities. This has to be obtained from a US embassy in their home country. Before any training can begin, cadets also have to complete the "alien flight student program", a personal background check conducted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on behalf of the US Department of Homeland Security.
Among the information required, applicants have to submit a full list of their home addresses over the previous five years, details about their current occupation, the flight school's name, licence type and model of training aircraft, as well as biometric data including a photo and fingerprints. This information can be submitted online and will be assessed against "appropriate law enforcement, intelligence, immigration and terrorist-related databases", says the TSA.
The procedure costs $130. If permission is granted, the student must complete the training within 365 days of the approval date. If the course programme takes longer, the applicant wants to change to another flight school or achieve a new, previously undeclared licence, the assessment must be repeated.
"We have had the odd one or two students where a visa was declined by the US embassy," says Matthew Adams, assistant chief flying instructor and operations manager at European Flight Training, a Joint Aviation Authorities-approved pilot academy in Fort Pierce, Florida. "The normal reason is that the authorities believe the applicant will not return to their home country or have the required funds to complete the training. They are worried that the applicant will seek employment in the USA. But we are talking well below a 1% rejection rate in terms of visa, and we have never had a rejection from the TSA."
Adams thinks that although the visa and security check have added to the bureaucratic process, they have not had a significant, lasting impact on the pilot academy's business case. Nevertheless, he concedes the measures might have put off a number of potential applicants and prompted them to seek alternative training facilities in other regions, such Australia or Eastern Europe.
Tim Brady, aviation college dean at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, Florida, does not think 9/11 caused a major shift in pilot training away from US locations to other regions. He feels the rise of new training campuses in, for example, Asia or the Middle East, is a result of the aviation industry's growth in those regions, not a decline in the attractiveness of North American academies.
© European Flight Training
Over the past decade, US schools have faced more competition from emerging regions
Brady says the annual number of students pursuing a commercial pilot's licence (CPL) at Embry-Riddle, including US and international trainees, has shrunk from 1,400-1,500 before September 2001 to about 1,100 now. But the main causes of this decline were the economic downturns after the terrorist attacks and, just as student numbers started to climb again, the credit crunch and financial crisis in 2007/08.
"In fact, 9/11 created a lot of negativity where parents advised their children not to go into aviation," says Brady. "The US market has not fully recovered from this."
Thanks to a broader range of course programmes, such as meteorology, air traffic management, safety sciences and homeland security, the total number of aviation students at the college has increased since 2001, and Brady is optimistic that the rise will continue. But he admits: "The international flight training business [for CPL applicants] has never recovered since 9/11."