Securing Air Cargo; the air cargo bomb lottery

The recent attempt to either bring down aircraft using air cargo, or mail letter bombs via air cargo (we’re still not sure but I’ll go with the Brits on this and agree it was likely an attempt to bring down a plane) has shed light on a little known part of the aviation industry. This will inevitably put air cargo security on some legislative aids’ To Do List  somewhere, who will be directed to draft legislation to make sure that air cargo is “secured.” Before the Congressional staffers fire up their laptops, let’s look at what we’re really trying to secure here, because I can tell you that someone will soon call for the screening of all cargo that is shipped on all aircraft to be screened just like we screen luggage. That is NOT the solution.

Here’s why that won’t work:

The first thing to understand about air cargo is that cargo doesn’t move like people do. The supply chain is quite a bit different as we saw recently with two packages traveling on several different aircraft, including both passenger and all-cargo aircraft. Cargo is also shipped on vessels, rail and vehicles. In fact, one parcel can transition between several different conveyances (i.e. vehicle and air) and several different variants of a single conveyance. i.e. passenger vs cargo aircraft, or even small to large aircraft and back to small. This makes screening cargo the same way we screen passengers and their checked baggage very difficult.

Screening cargo itself is difficult because virtually EVERYTHING is allowed to be shipped in cargo, whereas there is a specific list of prohibited items for passenger and luggage. How will screeners be taught to distinguish between computer parts and electronics and a bomb? Can that even be done? In the printer-cartridge bomb, Qatar authorities said that the way the bomb was constructed x-ray nor dog detection would have found it. By the way, I disagree with the dog detection comment — dogs have detected drugs and explosives concealed in piles of human excrement, within food, within packages completely sealed in plastic. . . don’t believe me, hit the Mythbusters website. Also, I’ve written quite a bit about the abilities of the K-9 teams, starting in 1995 and would trust my life with their noses.

Anyway, the point is that cargo looks different and can be about anything. It can appear as a pallet of automobile parts, or computer parts, or medical components that has been sealed to prevent tampering. It can be fresh flowers coming up from South America. It can be hazardous material (yes, it also goes on commercial aircraft — more regulated after the 1996 crash of ValuJet), it can be human organs, it can be just-in-time delivery of inventory for a retail outlet. The Airforwarders association puts the price tag of trying to install systems to physically screen all of this at just under $1 billion dollars, and that’s just for the first year.

Next, think of the infrastructure that airports would have to put into place at airports to conduct this screening. Just like screening checkpoints changed after 9/11, you would have to find a place to do the screening at the airport (think about massively expanding the air cargo areas), and also you had better start building a lot more roads into the airport to handle the traffic jam of tractor-trailer rigs that are going to be waiting in line for their goods to be offloaded and screened. Not very “green” folks.

It’s at this point, that just-in-time delivery gets shut down. There is a real economic price when that happens as much of our industry today is built upon the just-in-time model. Wal-Mart and similar retail stores will have to start warehousing more goods, which costs money, which will either come from laying off employees, closing stores or raising prices on the consumer, or most likely, all three plus a few that I haven’t thought of.

Consider also the small general aviation airports where much of the cargo passes into and out of communities. There will have to be massive changes there as well to install screening systems. Many of these airports don’t have the financial ability to handle this.

And even if we do all of this in the U.S., that doesn’t mean that the International community will follow suit.

Traditionally, the industry (domestic and international) has used a trusted shipper program for cargo security. In the U.S. this is called Known Shipper. ICAO calls it “Registered Agent.” It means that the shipper of the product and the carrying company (the airline or company that actually is responsible for moving the package) have a course of business with each other, the shipper has been vetted and there is a mutual trust that they aren’t going to try to blow up the plane, or put anything they are not supposed to in the package, including undeclared hazmat.

After 9/11, the TSA took over the vetting of the Known Shipper from the airlines. The next step for TSA is what I think is a better way to secure air cargo. TSA calls it the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP). Under CCSP, the shipper of the product, i.e. the company that accepts the product from the customer, must ensure it is properly screened. The TSA approves each CCSP shipper to ensure that each item accepted for shipment is screened by an x-ray, physical inspection (open it up and look at it), or explosive trace detection or other approved procedure or technology. TSA hired thousands of cargo inspectors just for this purpose. It’s the only practical way of screening cargo, unless you want to shut down the air cargo industry.

There is another way to look at this. In this case, it was not a security program that prevented the destruction of aircraft by cargo bomb, it was good intel gathering and prosecution. There is something to be said for allowing the intelligence agencies the responsibility for assuming some of this workload. I’m not suggesting that we don’t do any form of inspection of packages, but I am suggesting that we continue to focus on good intel work and field sources as an added layer of security.

Finally, there is another “safety valve” to air cargo security, and that’s the supply chain itself. It’s very difficult for someone who is shipping a package to know when and where that package is at any given time. Granted, you can go online and using the tracking number it will often tell you whether a package is in transit, or in the neighborhood, but hopefully it’s not giving you a GPS location of exactly where it is at every point in time. If you’re going to place a bomb into the cargo system, you could use a barometric trigger, but then you’re not certain if the package will be at altitude to go off in an all-cargo plane, a passenger plane, or even in a truck that happens to drive over a 12,000 mountain peak en route to a transition point. A timed switch takes just as much risk as you’re never sure when the explosive will detonate. It’s the terrorist version of playing the lottery – the air cargo bomb lottery.

Maybe they just bought a losing ticket this time and will realize that this type of attack has a low probability of success. After all, in the history of air terrorism very few successful bombings have been attributed to a bomb placed in air cargo (see my book for the one successful one). I understand that everyone says that terrorists will try new forms of attack and I agree. Maybe this figured out that it’s hard to win the lottery, and with this attempt, they really showed some of their cards for our intelligence agencies to view (i.e. the bomb maker, a modus operandi, etc).

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