WASHINGTON -- The federal government unveiled a plan to tighten air cargo security by checking the backgrounds of workers who handle freight and restricting access to sections of airports used for loading and unloading cargo.
The long-awaited plan from the Transportation Security Administration also requires cargo airlines to screen people who board their planes. Freight forwarders -- agents who accept packages and arrange shipment -- must make sure cargo doesn't include bombs, guns or stowaways.
However, the plan, unveiled Wednesday, contains few details about how the TSA expects the freight industry to accomplish those goals.
"These proposals would fill gaps in existing air cargo security regulations to mitigate the threat of terrorism to this vital industry," said the proposal, which was signed by TSA chief David Stone and listed in the Federal Register.
Critics say it's foolish to carefully screen people and luggage but not the cargo that's carried on passenger planes. They also say cargo planes need to be protected just as passenger planes are because terrorists could use either as weapons.
Currently, air cargo loaded onto passenger aircraft must be shipped by a company that has registered with the government. Cargo airlines have security plans and some cargo is randomly inspected.
Late last year Homeland Security officials said intelligence indicated al-Qaida might hijack cargo planes and attack nuclear plants, bridges or dams.
The TSA, which is part of Homeland Security, promised regulations to plug holes in air cargo security by the end of last year.
The plan does specifically call for companies to submit personal information about freight workers so their names can be checked against terrorist watch lists. The checks, called "security threat assessments," would include officers, directors or anyone who owns at least 25 percent of a freight forwarding company. People found on the list won't be allowed to handle air cargo without supervision.
The TSA proposes to charge companies $39 (?30) for each check. Employees at passenger airlines and airports have undergone background checks since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The plan also would require airports to restrict access to cargo operations, if they don't already do so.
Freight forwarders for the first time would have to develop security plans and submit them to the TSA for approval.
Cargo Airline Association President Steve Alterman, who worked on the plan, said freight companies aren't expected to come up with plans to screen every piece of cargo that they handle.
The message, he said, is, "Make sure you do the things in the security programs that deal with people and things and incendiaries and explosives."
United Parcel Service spokesman David Bolger said the company is reviewing the plan to see if it reflects the work of an industry group that recommended new regulations for cargo security. UPS is both a cargo airline and a freight forwarder.
Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachussetts Democrat, criticized the TSA for failing to compel inspection of all freight on passenger planes.
"Cargo that is placed on passenger planes without first being physically screened is unseen, uninspected and unacceptable," said Markey, who has co-sponsored a bill to require inspection of 100 percent of cargo on passenger planes.
Comments on the proposal are due by Jan. 10. Some of the provisions would take effect 90 days after the plan is finalized; others would apply in 180 days.