In the San Francisco International Airport pilot program, the Directorate for Science and Technology is working with the TSA, several airlines, airport officials and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to inspect six times more cargo than is being screened now.
To do so, officials built the sorting facility and trained a special contingent of security screeners to take apart most pallets and load goods into explosives-detection equipment.
Different technologies will be used to scan goods of varying shapes and sizes. Paper, for example, will be put through a different system than fruit or vegetables. Then screeners must reassemble the boxes and crates in time for their flights. The facility is expected to open in June.
"We're gaining an understanding of where the gaps are in the technology," said Amy Waters, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore and a manager for three pilot programs nationwide. "There could be improvements in algorithms for detection of explosives that we identify."
For companies that handle air freight, plans to deconstruct pallets raise liability concerns, and federal officials have urged airlines to obtain insurance.
"We certainly would not want to see a hand inspection program come out where all the resources and money the TSA has are focused on people ripping open boxes and creating warranty issues," said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Assn., which represents the air cargo industry. "There are experts that do nothing but spend time configuring containers to minimize damage to high-tech goods -- especially out of San Francisco."
Air cargo ferried on passenger aircraft contains primarily high-tech goods that are critical to just-in-time manufacturing, as well as perishable commodities such as fish, fruit, vegetables, flowers and medical supplies.
Federal officials also are conducting a pilot program at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport, where next month security screeners will begin using existing facilities to see how much cargo can be checked for explosives.
At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials started searching last fall for stowaways among goods destined for cargo aircraft, using technology designed to detect human heartbeats and carbon dioxide. Homeland Security is scheduled to report findings of all three pilot programs to Congress by the end of the year.
Air cargo representatives are skeptical that findings from these programs can be applied uniformly to the nation's diverse commercial airports and question how widespread inspections would be funded.
"If they're building a stand-alone facility at an airport, will every airport have the luxury of being able to erect a similar structure?" asked Fried of the Airforwarders group.
"It's safe today, and safe because there isn't a reliance on a magic bullet; they use a lot of things," he added. "You look at past history, and nothing has happened."
But security experts disagree that today's air cargo screening system is failsafe simply because terrorists haven't used goods shipped by air as a weapon.
"I would be extremely critical of the logic that says 'Since we haven't had an attack yet, we can be confident our system is working.' That is irresponsible," said O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
Lawmakers say they're concerned that the San Francisco pilot program has taken too long to get off the ground; they expect to hold hearings on it this summer. Participants say ever-changing federal security regulations, the complexity of designing a new cargo handling system and the number of entities involved slowed the process.
"I knew from the outset that this was going to be a very complex undertaking," said Homeland Security's Bauer. "When you step back from doing these pilots, you have an appreciation of how complex our country is. There are 448 airports out there."
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The Sea-Tac portion of the $30 million Air Cargo Explosives Detection Pilot Program will also involve explosives detection screening.
There was plenty of criticism Tuesday by a Senate committee considering the Transportation Security Administration's proposed fiscal 2009 budget.