FAA to Require Criminal Background Checks

Dec. 8, 2001 -- As many as 1 million airport and airline workers now will be subject to criminal background checks, according to a new Federal Aviation Administration rule.

All workers who have access to secure areas of airports and all security screeners and supervisors will have to be checked, the FAA rule said. New employees must also undergo the checks before they're hired to work in secure areas.

First Proposed in 1992

The FAA first proposed background checks in 1992, but the airlines opposed them. In 1996, some background and criminal checks began to be phased in for some airport and airline workers, but most current employees were exempt.

Now, in the wake of the hijacking and destruction of four U.S. jets on Sept. 11, the agency ordered the checks in an emergency rule, without any public comment.

In justifying the rule, the FAA wrote: "Given the resources and reach of the [terrorist] organization, it is likely that it has sought or will seek to place members in positions at airports to facilitate future attacks, or that it will attempt to co-opt individuals already in such positions."

Security experts said this rule is long overdue. Government investigations have turned up security screeners with convictions for burglary, assault and drug possession. And two years ago, 15 airport workers with felony convictions were among those arrested at Miami International Airport for smuggling drugs and guns onto airplanes.

Even today, some media investigations have revealed there are airline employees with felony convictions who have access to secure areas. Under the old regulations, these workers either were not subject to background checks or were protected from being fired. But with the new rule, the FAA says these workers could lose their jobs.

Now, all workers with access to secure areas will be fingerprinted. The FBI will run criminal checks. Workers who have been convicted of certain felonies over the past decade will lose their badges, which give them access to secure areas.

Workers Need ‘Integrity’

FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said airlines and airports will have up to a year to do the background checks.

"I think there is always a concern that you want people with the highest standards, with the highest degree of integrity, that are working close to the aircraft," she said.

Security experts applauded the new rule, but said it has one major flaw. The rule does not require ongoing background checks once an employee has been cleared.

Larry Johnson, formerly with the State Department and CIA, said ongoing checks should be required every three or four years.

"Is it a pain? Absolutely. Does it impose inefficiencies? Sure. But when you're dealing with security you have to put up with the inefficiencies and some of the redundancies to make sure you have a safe system," Johnson said.

Even the FAA admits the rule will have to be strengthened.

"There will be modifications," Garvey said. "There will be additions to it. But I think the goal, again, is to keep the information current. The goal is to make sure we are checking out everything that we possibly can."

ABCNEWS' Dennis M. Powell contributed to this report.