A Primer On Air Cargo Security

The industry readies for a December TSA deadline to screen all cargo on international passenger planes bound for the United States.


On Dec. 3, the Department of Homeland Security will enforce a new regulation requiring air carriers to screen 100 percent of all cargo aboard international inbound passenger flights. So how prepared is the cargo industry? What still needs to be done? And what’s the difference between “screening” and “scanning,” anyway?

How did we get here?

The initiative was mandated as part of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act that President George W. Bush signed into law in August 2007. Originally, legislators set a deadline of August 2010 to screen all such air cargo. The law required the Department of Homeland Security to establish a system that would screen all cargo transported on passenger aircraft to be “commensurate” with the level of security used for checked baggage.

‘Commensurate?’ Please explain?

The law does require all air cargo to be screened by the TSA at the “piece level” prior to transport on passenger aircraft for flights inbound for the United States. Keep in mind, this 100 percent screening cargo rule is already in force for domestic passenger flights and has been since 2010. Also, according to the TSA, more than 80 percent of cargo on international passenger flights bound for the United States is already being screened, up from around 65 percent two years ago.

But cargo isn’t exactly a suitcase. How can this be screened like passenger bags?

Like a lot of laws, legislators offered little direction at the time the bill was made law. At the moment, the TSA provides shippers with a list of approved screening technologies:

X-ray.

Explosives detection.

Explosives trace detection.

Metal detection.

But much of this technology on the market today is designed to screen baggage not cargo.

So how is the industry expected to screen cargo?

There are a couple of programs in place, including many supported by the air cargo industry. For example, the TSA’s National Cargo Security Program recognizes other nation’s air cargo screening security programs. Last June, the United States and the European Union, Switzerland and Canada agreed to recognize each other’s air cargo security procedures. “We strongly support efforts to enhance security of the air cargo supply chain without unduly disrupting vital commercial flows,” says Michael Steen, chairman of the International Air Cargo Association. “Mutual recognition of robust security regimes is an important way to further this goal.”

How different is what we do in the United States compared to what, say, the Europeans do?

The entire world stepped up cargo security measures after the 9/11 attacks. The TSA, for example, imposed strict protocols at the last departure point to the United States. Meanwhile, the European approach focused on ensuring that cargo, once it had been screened at its point of origin, could not be tampered with at any point along its route. Prior to the agreement, having these two procedures meant separating cargo bound the United States in airport warehouses for special processing that duplicated previous work and administrative paperwork. The costs of all this extra effort were passed on to the customers in the form of higher shipping rates. The additional handling procedures all but guaranteed longer shipping time, too. “Air cargo is by definition naturally urgent,” says Slim Kallas, the EU’s transportation commissioner. “Cutting out the duplication of security procedures will mean huge savings for cargo operators in terms of time and money.”

Any other countries?

Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association says there are currently 20 more agreements in the pipeline. “The absence of a screening agreement with the U.S. should not imply that those countries are failing to inspect cargo on U.S.-bound planes,” he says. “All countries are taking steps to secure departing flights …, but these steps may not be consistent with current U.S. practices.”

That’s great. But cargo is still not a suitcase.

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