Visa Rules May Hurt Small Flight Schools

Stricter visa regulations for foreign nationals training to be pilots in the U.S. will unduly burden small flight schools and chase students away, the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy says.

In a letter this week to the State Department, which recently proposed changes to its training and internship program, or so-called J-1 visas, SBA advocacy officials said small flight schools stand to lose as much as half their revenue under the new regulations.

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Because so many of their students are J-1 visas holders, flight schools will see a "very significant economic impact" from the changes, officials said.

Among other measures, the new regulations will require all J-1 visa sponsors to conduct in-person interviews with applicants in their home country, while verifying academic and work experience, proficiency in English, and finances.

They will also require aviation schools to reduce the maximum length of training programs from 24 to 18 months, and limit the ratio of flying time to classroom study.

The tougher regulations come amid government efforts to control illegal immigration and ratchet up security at the nation's borders.

According to the FBI, several of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers received flight training in the U.S.
The Office of Advocacy, which operates independently of the SBA, said it was "mindful that there are important security implications" in the proposed regulations.

The Helicopter Association International, a trade group based in Alexandria, Va., said in a statement that foreign students are already "carefully screened with background checks, fingerprinting, and suitability for flight training," and that the new regulations will do more harm than good.

Some 275,000 foreign nationals are issued J-1 visas every year, including au pairs, camp counselors, research scholars, teachers, and trainees, according to the State Department. About 350 are issued for flight training, the department said.

In January, a State Department policy statement said it did not have the "expertise and resources to fully monitor flight training programs and insure their compliance with the national security concerns expressed in the Patriot Act."

The department is accepting public comments on the proposed regulations until June 6.

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