Editor’s note: This story and photos won awards from the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club, the South Asian Journalists Association and New America Media for reporter Lisa Tsering and photographer Som Sharma. This story was originally published July 4, 2008.
Atwater, Calif. — A smoggy haze hangs oppressively over this tiny central California town, and heat waves shimmer in the 90-degree air on the runway of Castle Airport.
This is where more than 100 students — mostly young men and women in their early 20s, nearly all from India — found themselves grounded last week when their aviation school closed without warning and they were evicted from its student housing.
Each of the students had paid at least $40,000 in advance.
“We paid full tuition up front,” Bhavik Bhatt, 20, told India-West. “We all had hopes and dreams. Now we’ve come to know that everything is false.”
The American School of Aviation, founded by Manpreet “Prince” Singh and his wife, Reny Kozman, ceased operations last week after months-long troubles that included a lawsuit for unpaid fuel bills, a state code violation for insufficient insurance, at least eight violations imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration and an unpaid utility bill leading to the eviction of the students from the former Air Force barracks where they’d been housed.
“I can’t do miracles,” Kozman told India-West by phone June 27. “We’re downsizing big-time. These kids have gotta grow up. I can’t solve everyone’s problems.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has started an inquiry into whether the school’s owners were committing fraud, a representative from the Merced County District Attorney’s office told India-West June 30.
“The owner of the school is here on a Green Card from India,” said Merced County Deputy District Attorney Walter Wall. “So it raises international issues.” A call to the FBI public relations officer in Sacramento was not returned by press time.
When an India-West reporter and photographer visited the school June 27, the students — who had been ordered to vacate the premises by noon that day — were hauling boxes into rented cars, and trying to line up their next meal and a place to spend the night.
The small, dormitory-type bedrooms in the barracks lay in disarray, with empty food containers lining the counters of makeshift kitchens, which had no sinks and only hot-plates and microwaves.
An abandoned barracks swimming pool, surrounded by a chain-link fence, was across the street. The electricity and water in the barracks had been turned off. In one apartment, a fish tank stood full of water. “The fish died,” said one student morosely.
“It’s been a very testing time,” said Jaswant Kaur, 27, a student from Britain who had arrived at the school in March. “I have no words to say … I haven’t even told my parents completely yet.” Kaur is one of 15 women in the current class.
“I have no clue what to do next,” said a tearful Aya Hussain, another female student who had come from Dubai six months ago to study at ASA. “My family can’t do anything.”
The ASA students were charged a monthly rent of $350 each to live in shared rooms in the ramshackle former Air Force barracks adjacent to the airfield. The nondescript two-story structure is surrounded by brown, dead grass strewn with trash, and no amenities such as TV, phone lines or Internet were provided. “Can you believe students were charged $1,050 to live here?” said Ravi Hegde, gesturing at a three-person room.
Hegde, 21, from Mumbai, chose to live in an apartment offsite instead, for a comparable price. He would take a few of his fellow students in for the night.
Atwater, a tiny spot on the map located alongside the roar of trucks along Highway 99, a two-hour drive east from the San Francisco Bay, has a population of about 23,000. Its Air Force Base, decommissioned in 1994, is now home to a small municipal airport, air museum and a handful of flight schools.
It is here that ASA opened its doors in 2005, offering courses for the coveted ASA-ATP certificate, which includes up to 1,000 hours of flight time (required to work for airlines based in North America and Europe); as well as the ASA-SFTP-India license, which only requires 200 hours of flight time.
ASA claimed to have an arrangement with Kingfisher Airlines in which its students would have first priority for hiring interviews, said one of the students (a representative from Kingfisher’s head office in India did not reply to an email for confirmation).
The courses took approximately 10 months to complete, and ASA’s Web site lists tuition at $39,995, not including housing.
Despite international airline industry woes caused by high fuel prices, the Indian aviation industry is growing, and the glamorous world of aviation continues to exert a pull on young job-seekers.
“It’s raining pilot jobs in India!” reads an ad on AvJobs.com.
The Times of India reports that Indian Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel recently spoke of a demand for 2,500 pilots in the near future. In May, Professional Pilot News reported that Air-India has a shortage of pilots, especially those rated to fly Boeing 777s, and that the shortage led to the airline halting its Kolkata-London flights.
Kozman had toured India over the past few years to recruit students with promises of potential employment with Kingfisher Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Jet Airways, Air India, United and other carriers; a Tribune article from Amritsar in 2006 described her visit in glowing terms.
While ASA started operating in Atwater in 2005, it was founded in 2002 by Singh, who claims on the school’s Web site that it has graduated over 300 students. The site also says that the school owns a fleet of 50 aircraft.
But ASA ran into deep trouble. According to an article in the Merced Sun-Star, ASA was sued May 29 for $56,000 in unpaid fuel bills by Gemini Flight Support, which sells fuel at Castle Airport. A complaint filed by Gemini in Merced County Superior Court alleges that ASA also wrote a $24,400 check to Gemini that bounced.
County officials grounded ASA’s flights in May because the school’s insurance policy had lapsed, and city officials accused the school of operating without a business license. In April, reported the Sun-Star, a judge awarded student Shailendra Kapoor $7,500 for breach of contract and emotional stress.
The FAA is also taking action. “I can tell you that we have received multiple complaints about this school,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told India-West before emailing a list of eight violations levied against the school, including improper maintenance, unsafe or unairworthy aircraft, insufficient records and transcripts, and faulty flight operations.
The Sun-Star quoted Kozman as saying that ASA’s money problems were caused by dishonest employees in India, who stole student deposits and $140,000 in tuition. Kozman also said the arrangement with Kingfisher Airlines had been cancelled with no explanation.
In her remarks to India-West, Kozman didn’t mention where the money had gone, and only said, “I have very little money left. We’re cutting down our expenses.”
Kozman said she visited the students on the evening of June 26 to explain that the school would relocate “within a few weeks, hopefully by July 15,” to McClellan Air Force Base seven miles northeast of Sacramento. “I conveyed this message to them, and they completely understand,” she told India-West.
Two calls to confirm ASA’s claim with the leasing agent of McClellan Business Park, which handles leasing of office and airfield space in the former base, were not returned by press time.
One student said he had faith in Kozman and Singh’s promises. “Prince said the school was taking action, and they said they’d start again,” said Leopold Arambam, a student from Manipur who has accumulated 68 hours of training (of the requisite 200 hours). “It’s my only hope. I have to have full trust in what the school says.”
However, Kozman would not say how students would be taken care of until then, nor would she put India-West in touch with Singh. Subsequent calls to cell phone numbers of Kozman and Singh found their voicemail boxes full.
The students, all of whom feared deportation upon expiration of their student visas, have at least gotten one break — they are under no pressure from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Virginia Kice.
“The situation is pretty dire for them,” Kice told India-West by phone. “But they are not facing immediate deportation.”
Typically, when a school closes, international students are given a five-month grace period in which to find a similar, accredited school where they can complete their studies. But in ASA’s case, the school closed virtually without notice.
“The ICE is working with the State Department and authorities in India,” she said. “We are trying to find other schools with a comparable curriculum at a comparable cost.”
However, most ASA students fear that they’ll never see their money again.
Despite having closed down, the school’s Web site is still active, and even promises a Rs. 5,000 discount to students who apply before a July 5, 2008 deadline.
“The school continues to take in more students,” asserted Ashok Kumar Sinha, consul for community affairs at the Consulate General of India in San Francisco.
“I spoke to one student who came last week from India, and no one was there to meet her at the airport.”
Sinha has visited the students and tried to act as a liaison with local and county law enforcement officials, though he said the consulate does not have a budget to hire a lawyer for them.
Naranji Patel, a prominent local Indian American in the Bay Area and a friend of Bhatt’s family, who paid for his tuition, said that he does not want to spend any more money to hire a lawyer. “I’m already in debt,” he said. “A lawyer would just ask me for more money.” Patel, however, has agreed to house five students for a couple of weeks at the Sands Motel, a property he owns in San Jose. Some other students have found a place to stay near Los Angeles until their next move.
But here in sleepy Atwater, many of the students feel that they’ve reached a dead end.
Ravi Hegde laughed when he recalled images of America that he’d seen on his TV in India. “We thought we’d fly between the skyscrapers!” he told India-West.