FAA contractors approved flight licenses for Sept. 11 suspect

The man suspected of flying a plane into the Pentagon on Sept. 11 obtained three federal flight licenses from private contractors working for the Federal Aviation Administration, an agency spokesman confirmed Thursday.

Hani Saleh Hanjour, whom authorities believe flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, passed all the proficiency tests necessary to obtain the flight licenses, according to FAA spokesman Les Dorr. The Dallas Morning News first reported the story Thursday.

The certification from the private contractors enabled Hanjour to take a class in how to fly passenger jets at an Arizona flight school, the newspaper reported. Hanjour failed the flight training class.

For decades, the FAA has used contractors, known as "designees," to examine candidates who apply for different types of certification, including pilot licenses and aircraft mechanic licenses. "The designee system has served the agency quite well-with few exceptions-over those years," Dorr said. "The designees used, whether pilot examiners or other types of examiners, are thoroughly screened and very proficient in what they're involved in." The FAA has more than 20,000 designees, about 1,800 of whom are pilot examiners.

The designee system was not the problem in Hanjour's case, Dorr said. "As far as demonstrating proficiency, Hanjour had to pass the same exams that every other pilot-foreign and American-has to pass to get a license," Dorr said. "FAA personnel would have administered the same tests as the designees did."

Pilots and aviation instructors must be able to read, write and speak English to obtain a pilot license, according to the FAA. Hanjour's proficiency in English and flying skills were good enough to obtain certification from pilot examiners, but not strong enough to pass the training class at the flight school, according to The Dallas Morning News.

The FAA "does an excellent job" of overseeing designees, according to Dorr. "If we receive complaints [about designees], we investigate, and if they are not following the regulations, we don't hesitate to revoke their designee's license, or let their renewal lapse," he said. The FAA renews licenses for the contractors annually. Dorr did not know how many designee licenses the FAA has revoked or decided not to renew because the agency does not keep that information in a central database.

But the FAA's lax oversight of designees is precisely the problem, according to Heather Awsumb, a spokeswoman for the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS) union. PASS represents more than 11,000 FAA and Defense Department employees.

"The ultimate issue is not that a terrorist received a pilot license; even if he hadn't, he still could have hijacked a plane and done the same thing," Awsumb said. "The real problem is that regular oversight is handed over to private industry."

Awsumb said the FAA has only 2,800 inspectors to oversee the 20,000 designees. And much of the oversight involves simply sifting though paperwork, she said.

Designees have a financial interest in certifying as many people as possible, Awsumb argued. "They receive between $200 and $300 for each flight check," she said. "If they get a reputation for being tough, they won't get any business."

"We don't think the system works," Awsumb said. "There are too many loopholes to allow safety to be sold to the lowest bidder."

The FAA is now considering a rule that would allow organizations such as flight schools and trade organizations to become designees. The rule is still in draft form, and Dorr did not know when it would be ready for public comment.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec