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Hard times are plaguing flight schools { September 14 2003 }

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September 14, 2003
Hard Times Are Plaguing Flight Schools in Florida

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla., Sept. 13 Terry Fensome thought his flight school's fortunes had hit bottom in November 2001 when one of his planes was intercepted by fighter pilots who thought they were foiling a terrorist attack on Orlando.

But the acute embarrassment of that incident the student was forced to land, questioned and released was nothing compared with the economic misery that has dogged the Pelican Flight Training Center since then, a result of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Mr. Fensome's school is one of dozens in Florida that have struggled mightily in the last two years, beset by collapsing enrollment, security-related red tape and the stigma of being linked to the 9/11 hijackers, several of whom learned to fly in Florida.

"We never recovered," said Mr. Fensome, whose school has 30 students now, down from 60 before the attacks, though none of the hijackers trained at Pelican. "The idea that the flight schools were to blame for this was totally off the wall, and it hurt us a lot."

At least 50 of the state's flight schools have closed since 9/11, most of them mom-and-pop operations that could not survive the drop in business and rising costs. The number of foreign students has plummeted, flight school owners say, because of tough new immigration rules, the battered aviation industry and a general fear of bias since 9/11.

It is a striking reversal for the flight schools. With its warm weather, abundance of airfields and good flying conditions, Florida has long drawn student pilots from the United States and abroad.

The state had at least 220 of about 2,000 flight schools in the country in 2001, and trained about 20 percent of all pilots in the world, the Florida Department of Transportation said.

About half of the state's student pilots were foreigners drawn by the stature and lower costs of flight school in this country, flight school owners said.

Shortly after 9/11, Congress passed a law requiring extensive background checks for all foreigners learning to fly planes heavier than 12,500 pounds, which is about the size of a 10-seat jet. Since the checks can take months, many student pilots have opted to train in South Africa or Australia, which have a lot of flight academies and less oversight, flight school owners said.

In addition, American flight schools must now be certified by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the State Department keeps a close eye on all foreign flight students. Even applicants to schools for flying small planes, like Mr. Fensome's, must undergo background checks, though they are not as extensive as those for students at the schools for the pilots of jetliners. Only a few Florida flight schools train pilots for larger planes, and since the schools are bigger, they have generally not taken the financial hits of the smaller ones.

Marilyn Ladner, a vice president of Pan American International Flight Academy in Miami, said her school and others that offer advanced training had lost a lot of foreign students since the attacks because of the requirement for background checks. But Ms. Ladner said most of her revenue loss was due to the poor economy and because the airlines were not hiring.

Arne Kruithof, who owns Florida Flight Training Center in Venice, where one 9/11 hijacker learned to fly, said he had only a handful of students a year ago and his business was then barely surviving. Now, he said, he has 40 students and business is getting back to normal.

Mr. Kruithof, who has taken out loans to aggressively advertise his school in Europe, said, "Everything started recovering last winter, then when the news came that we were going to attack Iraq, we lost all our business again."

Mr. Kruithof's school trained Ziad al-Jarrah, one of the men who hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. A neighboring flight school, Huffman Aviation, trained Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, identified as leaders of the hijackings. The school's owner, Rudi Dekkers, sold his struggling business last winter.

Mr. Kruithof said a favorable exchange rate began drawing Europeans back to American flight schools in late spring. But like other flight school owners, he said no Middle Easterners had enrolled.

He said he had contacted the families of some former Middle Eastern students to ask why, and said they had told him the reason was part anger, part fear. "They said we could credit it to a general boycott against everything American," Mr. Kruithof said.

Their fear is warranted, other flight school operators said, because of what several called the continuing suspicions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement authorities. An example was the interception of Mr. Fensmore's student, a 24-year-old Angolan, after someone heard a radio transmission that supposedly threatened an attack on Orlando International Airport.

"Can you imagine one of these little things taking out Disney World?" Mr. Fensmore said, pointing to one of his two-seat Katana DA-20's at North Perry Airport, where his company has trained pilots for 18 years. "My student was scared out of his wits."

More recently, someone called the F.B.I. to report that a plane owned by Trade Winds International Flight School in Fort Pierce had circled a nuclear power plant on Hutchison Island, off Florida's Atlantic coast.

"I got a call from Miami air traffic control, and the next thing I knew the F.B.I. showed up at my door," Ernie Carnahan, president of Trade Winds, said. "They asked what color my plane was, apologized and said it was a case of mistaken identity. But it shows you they are still watching close."

Mr. Kruithof even saw a bright side. Federal agencies immediately answer phone calls and e-mail messages from flight schools these days, he said, while in the past such inquiries often fell through the cracks.

The government has also updated the application forms for foreigners seeking visas for flight instruction, Mr. Kruithof said, replacing forms that he said were so outdated they asked if the applicant had ties to the Third Reich.

Still, with student pilots restricted from flying over Walt Disney World and other potential terrorist targets, some student pilots are nervous, fearing they could unintentionally violate a rule and wind up in jail.

"There's always going to be that feeling that you're doing something wrong," Brett Montgomery, 19, who is training at Pelican, said.

Mr. Fensome was bristling because a visit by President Bush on Tuesday to Fort Lauderdale, about 10 miles north of Pembroke Pines, had shut down all flight schools in the area for the day.

"Every time they bring the president or another government official down they close the flight schools and we lose business," Mr. Fensome said, adding that he could not recall any such shutdowns before 9/11. "This knee-jerk stuff is toning down now, but it's never going to go away completely."

While the security crackdown is a nuisance, rising insurance premiums are a far more serious threat to flight schools, Mr. Fensome and others said. Mr. Fensome has grounded 5 of his 15 airplanes to reduce insurance costs, but he still pays $10,000 a month, he said. Mr. Kruithof said his insurance costs have risen by 55 percent since the attacks.

Many flight school operators say they believe business will fully recover over the next five years, as the economy improves, baby-boomer airline pilots start retiring and the aviation industry starts hiring again.

Until then, Mr. Fensome said he would be content with things as they were one day this week, as he watched four of his little planes scuttle out to the runway. "Four of them," he said, leaning forward to watch the first plane take off. "That's a blessing."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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