Packages taken to airline ticket counters for shipment on passenger planes will have to go through the same security screening as checked baggage, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Thursday.
Such packages - brought to an airline's counter by individuals looking to get a package to another destination or by courier services - already were being screened for the past several months at most airports around the country.
But the screening now will be mandatory for 100 percent of those packages, Chertoff said at a news conference at Boston's Logan International Airport.
"We closed that gap earlier this year, but we're now making this a legal requirement," Chertoff said, announcing that a formal directive was signed Thursday.
Chertoff said the move was in response to concerns that the packages were not being screened for explosives.
Chertoff cited Logan as being the first airport in the country to begin screening 100 percent of its passengers' checked baggage for explosives. Logan had begun the package screening four months ago, using X-ray and explosive sensors that are used to screen baggage on a system of conveyor belts.
Despite the new requirement, most of the cargo on passenger planes, which comes from larger freight shippers, remains subjected only to random checks. Freight forwarders who accept bulk packages and arrange shipment are required to have government-approved security plans and attend TSA training. Air cargo companies must register with the government and be approved by the TSA before they're allowed to send cargo on passenger airliners.
U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee who has criticized the lax screening procedures for counter packages, said he was pleased that the TSA had closed the loophole - but wanted more done.
"Until the Bush Administration physically screens all cargo on passenger planes for explosives and requires all cargo to arrive at the airport in a form that is screenable using existing screening technology, passenger planes are vulnerable to terrorist attack by people who don't even fly on the planes they seek to bring down," he said in a statement.
In May the TSA announced new air cargo security requirements, including criminal background checks for airline and freight workers and additional screeners to check the packages delivered to ticket counters. It also announced plans to use more bomb-sniffing dogs to screen air freight and to hire more air cargo inspectors.
Meanwhile, cargo pilots have complained about the vulnerability of cargo planes as the government focused on protecting passenger airliners.
The visit by Chertoff and Hawley comes three days after the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which were launched from Logan when hijackers boarded planes at the airport and crashed them into New York's World Trade Center.
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The TSA recently announced efforts to strengthen air cargo security by adding measures and making permanent some other practices.
The plan, originally proposed in Nov. 2004, includes new regulations for restricting access to sections of airports used for loading and unloading cargo.