WASHINGTON - The Transportation Security Administration has rolled back the deadlines for criminal-background checks for tens of thousands of airline workers who handle cargo loaded onto passenger airplanes, saying the industry cannot meet the timetables.
"TSA has concluded that the regulated community will be unable to meet some deadlines in the air cargo final rule because of the large number of employees and agents subject to the requirements," the agency said in a notice published this week.
The rules were originally slated to go into effect between Oct. 23 and Dec. 1. They require background checks and security training for an estimated 50,000 workers employed by the airlines or by airline contractors handling air cargo, said TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser.
Under the new timetables, several deadlines have been pushed back as far as mid-2007. The agency also will open the regulation to a new round of public comments, which could in turn lead to more changes. Air cargo has long been described as the weak underbelly of aviation security because the packages loaded into planes undergo far less scrutiny than passengers or their luggage. Earlier this week, a report card by the Council on Foreign Relations gave it a D-plus.
Several security experts blasted the delays as inexcusable at a time when aviation threats remain high.
"How is it possible that we check everyone in the passenger terminal, but we don't check the people loading cargo on the plane itself?" demanded Isaac Yeffet, a former security chief for El Al Israel Airlines and now a private consultant.
Yeffet criticized the TSA for what he called its lack of urgency, citing the recent leaked report that undercover agents were able to smuggle prohibited items past the agency's screeners at Newark International Airport in 20 out of 22 attempts.
"This is not the security that the American people need or deserve," he said.
But TSA officials said they were implementing other programs to beef up air cargo security, including a known-shipper program to distinguish higher-risk cargo and canine units to sniff for explosives. They defended the changes as "a more realistic timetable" based on the 4,500 responses they received from the industry - a view seconded by air carriers.
John Meenan, executive vice president of the Air Transport Association, said the new timetable will allow the process "to be completed in an orderly fashion with the full support of the airline industry."