Air cargo screening deadlines may be tough to meet

While Northwest Flight 253 has been making many of the security headlines lately, there is another debate going on that is drawing less attention, but is very important. By this year, the industry is expected to be conducting 100% screening of air cargo placed on a commercial aircraft, and it’s looking less and less like that deadline may be achieved.

First, let’s clarify the requirement. Under the 9/11 Bill, passed on 8.3.07, the industry is required to screen 100% of the cargo being carried on commercial aircraft. Seems simple enough but it’s not. First, it depends on how you define “screening.” When most people think of screening, they think of x-ray machines and magnetometers. However, screening can be physical inspection, K-9 inspection, mechanical (x-ray or explosives detection systems) inspection, or in some cases, just “certifying” that the item contains no explosives or dangerous materials. The cargo industry got away with this for years under the Known Shipper program, and the aviation industry continues to get away with it when the subject of “employee screening,” is brought up. In 2002, the aviation industry “met” the goal of 100% “screening” of checked baggage by changing the definition to include positive-passenger baggage match, even though the rest of the world believed that “screening” meant that the bags were undergoing an x-ray style inspection.

Second, let’s clarify who is responsible for screening – it’s the aircraft operator, not the TSA. TSA has tried to help with the challenge of cargo screening by instituting the Certified Cargo Security Program (CCSP) which allows the shippers to perform screening at their warehouse facilities and ensure that once screened, the packages remain secure until they arrive at the airport and are loaded on board the aircraft. This process involves the airport operator securing their air cargo areas to help maintain this chain of custody and last year they didn’t do so well. In 2009, the DHS Inspector General reported that investigators were able to slip into supposedly secure warehouses where cargo was being stored before going onto aircraft, and walk around unchallenged.

TSA has continued to try to fix the gaps identified in the DHS report but the challenges in screening air cargo are many. There are items that are allowed to be shipped in air cargo that are not allowed to be carried on board an aircraft, so your prohibited items list changes. That makes screening more difficult. A screener in the terminal knows what items to look for that shouldn’t be in the bags. A screener in cargo may see all sorts of things that are actually okay.

Also, many of the items shipped in cargo are expensive (computers, computer parts, tools) and are carefully packaged. The regulation states that everything must be screened at the “piece level,” which means to break down the pallet — many pallets are often shrink-wrapped to protect against damage and theft.

Another issue is that a lot of air cargo is food that could be spoiled if delayed in a screening process in a warehouse at an airport.

While the possibility exists that air cargo could be used to place a bomb on an aircraft, there have been few instances where it’s been attempted (the Unabomber even tried it back in 1979 and was unsuccessful — but he was still learning his bomb making craft back then too). Part of the challenge of placing a bomb on a commercial flight via air cargo is that the bad guy doesn’t have a lot of certainty that his or her package will even be placed on a commercial flight, or that it will be a flight with a lot of people on board. It may end up on an all-cargo carrier, or put on flight with only a few passengers, thus limiting the damage caused. I think TSA is on the right track with the CCSP rather than trying to install thousands of x-ray scanners at U.S. airports, but some leadership at TSA, working with the cargo industry couldn’t hurt.

It will be interesting to watch and see how the TSA and the industry handle this important issue.

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