US flight schools will be able to resume training of foreign student commercial pilots in March after a 17-month hiatus imposed following 11 September, but many fear continued damage to business.

After the terrorist attacks, US Congress rapidly introduced laws requiring lengthy background checks, administration and fingerprinting of all foreigners wishing to do their initial or recurrent pilot training at schools in the USA.

Some of the terrorists who hijacked the four US aircraft learned to fly large jets at US training schools.

Responsibility for overseeing the background checks was placed with the US Department of Justice (DoJ), but it has taken 16 months for the agency to issue a ruling that sets out the checking process.

In the meantime, many student pilots - frustrated by the long delay - have sought training outside the USA, even though flight-training hours are typically more expensive elsewhere. Many US schools have lost overseas business and worry they may never recover all of it. Even with a background check process in place, many pilots are reluctant to undergo the detailed and lengthy screenings.

The DoJ's final ruling, issued last week, has done little to ease training industry concerns. Although it promises a website will be operating from 17 March so that foreigners can submit their applications to be screened, allowing schools to resume initial training from that day, almost all of the strict screening requirements remain in place.

"Everyone is pretty discouraged. There are really no breaks at all," comments a large US training company manager. Pan Am International Flight Academy vice president of contracts and administration Marilyn Ladner agrees. "Any wins are very minor," she says.

The US General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), which has been campaigning on behalf of FlightSafety International and CAE SimuFlite, says it is "very disappointed" the ruling took so long and adds there is frustration in the training and pilot communities.

"Our businesses have lost a significant amount of money," says GAMA general counsel Jeffrey Sural.

Source: Flight International