By CATHERINE BYRNE
Capital News Service
LANSING — Although some legislators believe criminal background checks for flight school applicants are warranted, John Conrad sees them as an infringement on American freedoms.
Conrad, owner of Conrad Aero, a flight school in Three Rivers, believes Americans have the right to fly a plane if they want to.
“I just think it’s taking away some of our freedoms as American citizens,” Conrad said. “You need to trust people a little bit in society.”
The Senate passed a bill Tuesday 35-0 requiring criminal background checks for all flight school applicants.
Sen. George Hart, D-Dearborn, introduced the bill after seeing “how easy” it was for terrorists to learn how to fly in the United States.
“It’s like sending people over here for rifle-training class,” Hart said. “They took the open opportunity to learn to fly to guide a plane into those towers.”
Conrad, however, contends flight school is no different than any other school.
“Do you make students in high school get a background check before they attend school?” he asked. “I’m just not sure this would increase the safety of flight in any way.”
Under a federal law enacted after Sept. 11, private flight schools are required to notify the U.S. attorney general of any foreign applicants. If Hart’s measure becomes law, all applicants would be subject to an FBI criminal history check before they could enroll.
Conrad’s concerns include increased costs.
“It would be expensive and time-consuming,” he said. “Are you really helping American citizens? No, you’re just charging them more money.”
Sen. Philip Hoffman, R-Horton, voted for the bill and calls it “unfortunate, but necessary.”
“It’s definitely going to add costs to the flight schools,” he said.
Sen. Bill Bullard, R-Highland, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also said the bill is necessary.
“The experiences of 9-11 have led to this bill and we’ve seen that most of the hijackers went to flight schools with the idea to pilot a plane into a building,” Bullard said. “One of the guys went to flight school and told them he didn’t want to learn how to take off and land, he just wanted to learn to fly straight.”
At least eight of the 19 hijackers Sept. 11 had some pilot training. Most trained in Florida; others took lessons in the San Diego and Phoenix areas.
The International Pilot Training Centre at Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation was called into question immediately following Sept. 11. It is recognized as one of the top five flight schools in the nation and turns out a number of students from other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, where some of the hijackers were from.
The investigation found that no WMU students, former or current, were linked to the attacks.
If the bill passes in the House, it will go on to the governor.
Gov. John Engler supports the bill, said his deputy press secretary, Matt Resch.
“We’re hopeful that the House will pick up where the Senate left off and it will be on the governor’s desk soon,” Resch said.
Hart believes the government needs to take extra precautions with these specific private enterprises under the circumstances.
“People came over here for the express purpose of doing destruction,” he said. “Nothing can change what happened in September, but we can have safeguards in place to try to keep something like that from ever happening again.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By CATHERINE BYRNE