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Flight schools recovering slowly from stigma of training terrorists
By Rachel La Corte, Associated Press
VENICE, Fla. — Rudi Dekkers is still waiting for business to rebound after his Huffman Aviation flight school was linked to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
The only things keeping Huffman afloat are fuel sales and plane maintenance jobs.
"We have no students, period," said Dekkers, who closed another flight school in Naples last December after it lost $1 million following the attacks.
It is a lament across the industry. The Sept. 11 terrorists trained at flight schools in Florida, Arizona and Minnesota, learning some of the skills they needed to carry out the attacks. Some of those schools are still carrying that stigma -- and business has suffered as a result.
Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who were believed to be at the controls of one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, took flying lessons at Huffman from July 2000 to January 2001.
Just down the road from Dekkers is the Florida Flight Training Center, where Ziad Samir Jarrah trained. Jarrah died aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
Owner Arne Kruithof said he has lost about 30 percent of his business, which pre-Sept. 11 brought in about $750,000 a year.
"Every flight school, every airline, everybody in the aviation community is in survival mode," he said. "We all balance our books at the end of the month and have zero. If you close the month and paid all your bills then you're doing good."
In Minneapolis, the Eagan flight school has similar problems. Accused hijacking accomplice Zacarious Moussaoui trained at the school until a suspicious instructor tipped the FBI.
Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is charged with six counts of conspiracy for his alleged involvement in the plot to kill Americans. Prosecutors believe he was training to be the 20th hijacker.
The school, run by Miami-based Pan Am International Flight Academy, opened a new building in January. It houses three new flight simulators that were supposed to cement the school's future.
But the government passed legislation after Sept. 11 that prohibits flight schools from training inexperienced pilots on heavy aircraft. Only seasoned crew members who want additional training can use the simulators, and only after a thorough background check by the Justice Department.
Previously, anyone with a pilots' license and the money could use the simulators following a less-rigorous background check.
The new policy has caused enrollment to dip significantly at the Eagan flight school. A Pan Am official declined to cite specific financial losses but said profits had been cut "tremendously."
Though many flight schools are still struggling, some in the industry say things are improving.
"As time has progressed, most of the flight schools are coming back to levels that are reasonably close to where they were before," said Warren Morningstar, spokesman for Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Md.
Morningstar said the most significant effect at the approximately 500 U.S. flight schools is the decline of foreign students, due to tougher visa standards.
"It's unfortunate, because the vast majority of people who come to the United States for flight training aren't terrorists," Morningstar said.
Under new rules, foreign pilots will be subjected to background checks and be required to show they understand written and spoken English before being issued U.S. licenses to fly.
The Federal Aviation Administration has in the past automatically granted U.S. certificates to pilots from the 188 countries that are members of the United Nations aviation group, known as the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Under the new rules, all foreign pilots must submit applications, including a photo ID, to the FAA. The agency will verify the identity of the applicant, check the name against various watch lists and make sure the foreign license is valid.
Foreign pilots wishing to fly commercial planes must pass the appropriate tests after obtaining their U.S. certificate.
Financial woes first struck all flight schools when restrictions kept their planes on the ground after the attacks. It took up to two months after the attacks before flight schools fully reopened, said David Kennedy, spokesman for the National Air Transport Association.
But even after the restrictions were lifted, the damage was already done -- students stopped applying and business ground to halt for some schools.
A year ago, Dekkers had 20 full-time foreign students a month, each paying up to $20,000 apiece. Today, he's down to one. Many foreigners are now looking to train in other countries, such as South Africa and Australia.
Kruithof wonders whether business will ever get back to normal.
"It depends on what you consider normal," he said. "Financially? Yes,
because other flight schools are going out of business and there are less
schools to compete with. But will we have the relaxed atmosphere and easy
procedures of the past? Of course not."