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Proposed ordinance on foreign flight students draws criticisms

REGION — To San Diego County staff, a new ordinance would bring enhanced alertness to vetting potential foreign flight students for security risks. 

But for the Palomar Airport Advisory Committee and community stakeholders, the proposed ordinance would bring a meaningless, bureaucratic requirement on local flight schools and instructors.

“Quite truthfully, having a CFI (certified flight instructor) sign a paper is not going to stop terrorism,” said Leslie Day, the current vice president of Gillespie Pilots Association.

The proposed county ordinance arose out of a federal government report following in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. The report pointed out that the TSA’s (Transportation Security Administration) vetting of foreign flight students for security risks did not take into account their immigration status.

Though flight schools and instructors are overseen and enforced by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and TSA, the County Board of Supervisors directed staff to create an ordinance that would improve local compliance with vetting potential flight students.

The proposed ordinance would require flight schools and independent flight instructors that use county airports to sign a piece of paper once a year, stating that they are following all federal foreign flight student screening and vetting requirements.

By the time the ordinance was presented to the Palomar Airport Advisory Committee at its Nov. 21 meeting, the Fallbrook Airpark Advisory Committee and Gillespie Field Development Council had already unanimously opposed the ordinance.

County program coordinator Roger Griffiths explained the county’s position, saying, “We can’t go out to try to fingerprint foreign nationals, but we can take some measures within our own authority to assist or augment what the federal government is doing.”

He added that he has heard of some flight schools turning away foreign students because of visa requirements, only to have those students find a different flight school.

“Adding another layer of bureaucracy is not going to add safety,” said Carol White, who is on the Palomar Airport Association board.

Candice Chin said that she already has to spend an incredible amount of time and money complying with federal standards for the flight school she runs with her father out of McClellan-Palomar Airport, Civic Helicopters. She expressed frustration at the idea of having to sign a “meaningless piece of paper” once a year on top of what she does already.

Palomar Airport Advisory Committee member Bob Gates said, “This looks like window dressing. It looks like a way of staff trying to get what the county wants.”

He suggested that the county add an educational component to flight schools’ and instructors’ training about vetting foreign students rather that having them sign a document.

Committee member Tom Ricotta said the county ordinance did not make sense since it is based on federal regulations that only federal agencies can enforce.

“This is a useless and illegal ordinance,” he said.

The Advisory Committee voted unanimously to oppose the ordinance.

The ordinance will come before the County Board of Supervisors with a report on the votes from the advisory committees at an upcoming meeting.