Employers at some U.S. airports are being allowed to hire workers without completing all background security checks because of a backlog in the screening process, federal officials said.
In the past, new employees were required to undergo a Transportation Security Administration criminal background check and a security threat assessment before they could start working, partly because they have access to secure areas of an airport.
Now, employees at airports including the world's busiest in Atlanta can start work so long as they have been fingerprinted and their information is submitted for a background check. Anyone who failed a background check would immediately have their clearance revoked.
"To allow for a continuity of operations, TSA has provided airports and airlines with interim regulatory relief," TSA spokesman Jon Allen said in a statement Thursday. "At no time was security at risk, and all new employees will still undergo identity verification and be subject to watch list matching."
The change was first reported by WSB-TV in Atlanta, which obtained an internal memo sent April 20 to employers and contractors at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Airport spokesman John Kennedy said operations have not been affected as a result of the waiver.
"Whatever the letter did or didn't say, nothing's changed here," Kennedy said. "We've been in full compliance with all of TSA's regulations and security directives continuously. All of our employees are fully vetted."
Atlanta's airport has been preparing to open a new international terminal next month and has been hiring workers for several restaurants, shops and other businesses.
TSA requires threat assessments to be conducted for all employees who need access to secure areas in airports, including baggage workers, ground maintenance workers, and restaurant and retail employees, the agency said last year.
The agency did not say how many airports have taken advantage of the "regulatory relief," nor how long employees can work without full security clearance.
The Transportation Security Clearinghouse, the nonprofit arm of the American Association of Airport Executives, ensures security threat assessments and criminal history record checks are done for aviation workers. AAAE spokesman Joel Bacon said the backlog occurred after TSA on April 1 changed how background checks are processed for the first time since early 2002.
But by now, most airports are back to operating as efficiently as they had before the changes, making the temporary clearances unnecessary at most airports, Bacon said. He said the clearinghouse is now working with TSA and individual airports to clear any remaining backlog.
Security experts said it was highly unlikely that granting temporary security clearances while the checks are processed would put the public at any higher risk.
"I think the threat is fairly minimal, but clearly it is something that they've got to address," said Russell McCaffery, a former TSA executive who noted that employees at the airports would likely notice anything suspicious.
"You've got all these other sets of eyes that are out there. It would be very difficult for one single person to disrupt the system," he said.
Most of the people who undergo a background investigation are eventually hired anyway _ even at U.S. government agencies _ regardless of what job they have been hired to do, said Richard Bloom, an aviation-security expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.
"I think what people might worry about is not so much what is going to be delayed or not, but instead what is the value of the background check to begin with," he said.
Stengle reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer Jeff Martin contributed to this report from Atlanta.