Government sets anti-terror measures for cargo

Planes were grounded in April at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport after a "suspicious device" was detected in a screening machine.
Planes were grounded in April at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport after a "suspicious device" was detected in a screening machine.Kiichiro Sato / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The government Wednesday announced new security requirements for air cargo that include criminal background checks for more than 100,000 airline and freight workers and screeners to check packages delivered to airport ticket counters.

The Transportation Security Administration said it will also use more bomb-sniffing dogs to screen freight that’s shipped by plane and that it will soon finish hiring 300 new air cargo inspectors, which Congress included in the agency’s budget this year.

“It’s a lot about background checks and security plans,” said TSA chief Kip Hawley.

Hawley said he delayed issuing the rule, which was due in August 2005, shortly after he was sworn in. The original proposal excluded from the background check requirement some people who handle freight, he said.

“I wanted to be sure we covered the entire supply chain,” Hawley said.

Cargo pilots have long complained that the government focuses most of its efforts on protecting passenger airliners from terrorist attacks, leaving cargo planes vulnerable. They point out that cargo planes could also be seized by terrorists and used as weapons.

Some lawmakers have criticized the Bush administration for screening airline passengers and their luggage but not inspecting the cargo that’s carried on the same plane.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said billions of pounds of air cargo is loaded onto passenger planes every year without being scanned at all.

“The Bush administration missed an important opportunity to close a major homeland security loophole today when it announced a final air cargo rule that fails to require inspection of 100 percent of the cargo carried aboard passenger planes,” Markey said.

Hawley said focusing on packages misses the vulnerability, because a terrorist who works at an airport could slip bombs into the cargo hold after each package has been inspected.

Plan in the works since 2004
The TSA’s long-awaited plan — it was originally proposed in November 2004 — includes new regulations for restricting access to sections of airports used for loading and unloading cargo.

It also requires the employees of more than 4,000 freight forwarders — agents who accept packages and arrange shipment — to attend security training courses designed by the TSA. Freight forwarders will have to develop security plans and have them approved by the government.

Hawley said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was responsible for the requirement that packages delivered to the airline ticket counter be screened.

“If someone wants a package on a particular flight, we want to be very sure about that,” Hawley said.

The new requirement is supplemented by such changes as surprise visits by air cargo inspectors and daily checks against terrorist watch lists of airport workers with access to sensitive sections of airports, Hawley said.

The TSA has relied on a “Known Shipper” program to make sure bombs or weapons don’t make their way onto passenger planes. Air cargo companies must register with the government and be approved by the TSA before they’re allowed to send cargo on passenger airliners.

The TSA said it will consolidate 4,000 Known Shipper lists into one so it can keep closer track of companies that ship cargo on passenger planes.

The agency said that in recent weeks it banned three companies from sending cargo on passenger aircraft.