In one of the most comprehensive security mandates since Sept. 11, 2001, tens of thousands of Memphians in the air cargo industry are being fingerprinted and run through federal background checks.
Come midnight Monday, the process will be standard hiring procedure for any FedEx or UPS employees who have unescorted access to aircraft.
"This is one more layer of security, but not the end-all answer," said Donald Barker, head of the Transportation Security Administration in Memphis. "We've had different rules that applied to the air carriers themselves. Now we're taking in the entire supply chain, which essentially includes anybody that touches the cargo from the time it is presented until it gets on an aircraft."
Over several weeks, FedEx has processed fingerprints on 15,000 to 18,000 employees for its Memphis hub alone.
"It doesn't include just hub employees, but anyone in any other capacity who by nature of their job is required to go to the hub," said FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey.
For security reasons, FedEx would not say how it will use or store the fingerprints, although it has made minor changes to its employee badges.
An estimated 50,000 employees nationwide must have background checks and threat assessments done on them as part of the Transportation Security Administration mandate, which came after debates in Washington about whether to require 100 percent cargo screening.
"Part of our job is to make sure they understand what we have in place, why the new system works well and why 100 percent cargo screening isn't needed," said Charles Chambers, senior vice president at Airports Council International-North America.
While the deadlines vary from now until June 15, depending on the worker's access to aircraft, the cost to the employer for the threat assessment will be $28 per employee.
"My only comment is if it makes flying more secure, it's worth it," said Neely Mallory Jr., chairman and chief executive of Memphis-based freight forwarder, Mallory Alexander International Logistics.
He has 75 to 100 employees who must have the assessments completed by March 15.
"Surprisingly, there's been very little resistance from employees," Chambers said. "I think a lot of people expected it in this industry."
Deadlines were extended by 90 days last fall to allow companies time to comply.
"We've put in place a good regime that is multi-layered and random, making it hard for someone to predict situations, which is what terrorists do," Chambers said.
For instance, during orange alerts, random employees will be selected for searches. Random cargo is also being searched by dogs in a pilot test in St. Louis that likely will be extended to other cities.
"The checks with people, the training, the counter-to-counter screening, the dogs, all these different things are happening," Chambers said. "It's going to be very hard to break through all those layers to put something on a plane or do something with people."
TSA will now manage the Known Shipper Database, a list of tens of thousands of shippers who until now were required to file detailed corporate information with each carrier.
"If we pick up freight from a customer not on that TSA list, we cannot move it on a commercial airline," said Ray Skinner, local Pilot Air Freight franchise owner.
Couriers and truck drivers who have no access to airplanes but pick up packages that will go by air must be trained to report suspicious activity and complete an online test.
"We've probably spent somewhere in neighborhood of five to seven hours in training per person," Skinner said.
While the government is not refunding training costs, some previous corporate background checks are being accepted, said Barker, in charge of compliance in Memphis.
"We can show up anytime we want to," he said. "At the end of the day, all I want to see is that they are compliant."