To compare air cargo security prior to 9/11 and post-9/11 is like comparing apples to automobile parts.

Airport security has traditionally been focused on protecting the highest value target on the airfield which is the passenger jet. There have been very few attempts to hijack a all cargo aircraft or get a bomb on board a passenger jet using the air cargo supply chain, but mostly air cargo security was an ignored subject prior to 9/11.

However, air cargo aircraft and general aviation aircraft share ramp space and the runway and taxiway system with passenger aircraft so some security was necessary, but mostly to prevent individuals from accessing the airfield through the air cargo ramp area as a means of getting to the passenger aircraft side of the airport.

Probably the most notorious attempt to bomb a passenger jet using the air cargo supply-chain is when Ted Kaczynski placed a bomb on board an American Airlines flight in 1979. The bomb sort of fizzled and flamed out resulting in injuries but the pilots were able to safely land the aircraft. Kaczynski would go on to become known as the “University and Airline bomber,” which would be shortened by the FBI to simply the Unabomber.

In 1994, a FedEx pilot attempted to hijack a FedEx flight resulting in the critical injury of three flight crewremembers, who despite their injuries still managed to safely land the aircraft. The attempt was seen more as a extraordinary workplace violence incident rather than air terrorism, and then forgotten to all but the National Geographic Channel.

However, after 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA begin to feel that as gaps were closed in passenger security that terrorists may select air cargo is a new avenue of attack. Turns out they were right. In October 2010, terrorists introduced two bombs into the aviation system via air cargo by concealing them in printer cartridges.

Prior to 9/11 the only real security in place for air cargo was called known shipper. This concept relied on airline personnel conducting cursory inspections and interviews with freight forwarder companies to determine who they were most comfortable allowing to fly cargo on their planes. That was pretty much it.

Post-9/11, there have been many changes.

The known shipper program is now managed by TSA with TSA inspectors conducting the inspections and managing the Known Shipper database. In 2006 the rules regarding airport cargo changed significantly requiring that within four years 100% of all cargo carried on a domestic passenger aircraft be screened. But, the challenges with screening cargo the way that baggage is screened is multi-layered. It’s not just as easy as installing rows of x-ray machines in the air cargo areas of an airport.

  • Many items that are prohibited to be carried in carry-on bags and some checked bags, are allowed to be shipped via air cargo, making it difficult to train screeners on what to look for.
  • A lot of cargo comes to the airport in tractor-trailer rigs, which takes up more space than passengers standing with their bags in a screening line.
  • About 80% of the cargo shipped by air is break-bulk, meaning it can fit inside a standard Explosive Detection System machine, but much of the remaining is palletized cargo. Sensitive computer parts, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals are often shipped in air cargo and screening such items using traditional methods may cause damage or destruction of the shipment.
  • If the industry attempted to screen cargo the way bags are screened, approximately 90% of the cargo currently shipped by air today, would be not be able to be shipped on a daily basis.

Considering the logistical challenges of screening air cargo, TSA created the Certified Cargo Screening Program, whereby Indirect Air Carriers (such as freight forwarders) can become certified to conduct the screening function at their facility, rather than at the airport. Or, a company can become a Certified Cargo Screening Facility, then contract with freight forwarders to conduct the required screening. Finally, the aircraft operator can screen the items themselves at the airport, in their cargo facilities, using traditional methods when possible.

TSA has also created suspicious awareness programs such as Air Cargo Watch, and has more than tripled the number of K-9 explosive detection teams, which now number over 400. According to some numbers, TSA K-9 teams spend at least 25% of their day screening air cargo. In 2006 the all-cargo security program was created to make security for all-cargo aircraft such as the large FedEx and UPS flights we are all familiar with and airport operators were required to make all air cargo areas on an airport, SIDAs (Security Identification Display Areas), which is to say that security of the air cargo areas were required to be increased.

As TSA and the industry closed the security gaps in commercial aviation, terrorists did indeed start looking at alternate forms of attack, such as air cargo. While the U.S. does not have much influence on how international carriers handle air cargo, domestically, air cargo security is much better than it was pre 9/11.

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