It's been a vexing, if little publicized, dilemma in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: The thorough screenings that passengers' bags are subjected to do not extend to most cargo hoisted into the bellies of airliners.
Lawmakers hope to change that soon, starting with a pilot program this summer in a drafty hangar at San Francisco International Airport. Here, with the help of a new, $8-million sorting facility, flowers, machine parts, personal computers and myriad other goods bound for passenger aircraft will come under greater scrutiny than ever.
Officials hope the six-month program will help them figure out how to inspect more cargo on passenger jets for explosives without slowing time-sensitive shipments. Getting products to customers quickly is crucial for U.S. businesses to remain competitive and delivers up to $5 billion a year in worldwide revenue for the airlines.
"We want to prove we can screen significantly more cargo than we do presently without interfering with the stream of commerce," said Douglas Bauer, an executive at the Department of Homeland Security's Directorate for Science and Technology. "We also want to capture what costs are associated with screening significantly more cargo."
Some cargo on passenger jets already passes through several layers of screening, but for the most part it isn't as rigorous as the explosives-detection systems, X-ray machines and searches applied to travelers and their luggage.
Federal lawmakers, who ordered the pilot program last year, expect it to help officials figure out how to inspect containers on large pallets for explosives with technology that has been designed to scan individual pieces of luggage. Systems that can screen all types of cargo don't exist.
Although the terrorist attacks changed air travel forever, most of the approximately 6 billion pounds of cargo shipped aboard passenger aircraft within the U.S. each year is not inspected thoroughly, according to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency created after the skyjackings to revamp aviation security, does not reveal how much cargo on passenger jets is screened, citing security concerns.
"When they don't tell us what percentage of air cargo is being inspected, they're implicitly telling us that air cargo is a much bigger risk," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "They're implicitly saying that 'Al Qaeda loves to go after airplanes, so we're not going to tell you how much air cargo is being inspected.' "
Congress is considering legislation that would require the TSA to screen all cargo on passenger aircraft by 2009. About half the baggage compartment on a passenger plane is set aside for unaccompanied cargo. Goods shipped on all-cargo aircraft would not receive the same scrutiny because travelers wouldn't be aboard.
The TSA says cargo currently destined for passenger aircraft must pass through several layers of security. That includes requirements that all individual packages checked at airports be inspected, that airlines establish business relationships with companies that provide them goods and that bomb-sniffing dogs monitor some shipments.
"All cargo carried on passenger planes is only handled by companies that have security programs that have met our requirements," said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman. "These companies are subject to our inspections to make sure they're complying with the rules."
However, the GAO report found significant vulnerabilities in the TSA's "known shipper" program, including reliability of information provided by the companies and how the agency identifies shippers that may pose a risk. The TSA says it is addressing those issues.