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.


“Screened” doesn’t necessary mean “scanned” through an X-ray machine or other device. Screened can mean evaluating the contents, sender and destination of packages and doing more intensive inspections on high-risk cargo. Consider what the industry did to screen 100 percent of the cargo on domestic flights for at least a direction. While U.S. politicians have pushed for physical inspection of every parcel and pallet that enters an aircraft, the global airfreight industry has argued that such an approach risks paralyzing some 40 percent of the value of global trade. The TSA’s Certified Cargo Screening Program for domestic flights includes procedures for known and established shippers, deploying explosive detection canine team and conducting covert tests and surprise inspections of cargo operations. A CCSP facility must be approved by TSA and adhere to strict security standards, including physical access controls, personnel security and screening of prospective employees and contractors. A secure chain of custody must also be established from the shipping facility to the aircraft. Scanning air cargo represents a huge challenge since a typical container may have been consolidated into shrink-wrapped pallets before it arrives at an airport. As a result, the Air forwarders Association says more than half of cargo screening in the United States is conducted at off-airport sites. The trade group says screening of smaller pieces of cargo at these sites before pallet consolidation is one reason the TSA met the 100 percent screening mandate for domestic cargo on schedule.

So, in other words, certify shippers and those procedures before a shipment reaches the airport?

Almost all the security with baggage is focused on one moment – when passengers hand over bags at the airport. There isn’t any one such moment with cargo, but there are a lot of little moments along the way. While U.S. law stops at the border, other countries could adopt this as its model. Besides, multinational forwarders and shippers, many of which may already be regulated in the United States by the TSA through the CCSP, command a lion’s share of the international air cargo business.

Any other programs in the works?

For its part, the cargo industry also has thrown its support for the Air Cargo Advanced Screening pilot program that just started in 2011. With this program, airlines send manifest data to U.S. Customs and Border Protection several hours before departure, which should further bolster inbound screening. By analyzing this data in advance, TSA and CBP have a fast and efficient way to screen vast amounts of cargo and zero-in more quickly on the precise items requiring further scrutiny. These are just a couple of programs for the actual shipping process, but there are other initiatives to standardize electronic data. The International Air Transport Association, for example, has been working through the recently established Cargo Security Task Force with the World Customs Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization as well as carriers and regulators worldwide to harmonize these requirements.

So how would you sum this all up?

The key is to identify trusted shippers – and then focus on screening suspicious packages. And by that we mean, pulling it out of the mass of an otherwise legitimate container. The air cargo industry advocates a system of electronic documentation that assures that nobody tampers with cargo as it moves through the supply chain.

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