Nearly 64,000 metric tons of commercial cargo fly in and out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport each year on passenger planes stowed in the jets' bellies alongside travelers' Samsonite and ski gear.
But unlike passenger baggage, most commercial freight is not screened for explosives. That will change, at least for the next several months, as Sea-Tac becomes the second test site for a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pilot program.
The department plans to announce today that Sea-Tac will join San Francisco International Airport and an unnamed Midwestern airport in the $30 million program.
The congressionally mandated program will test different ways of detecting explosives that might be hidden in commercial shipments, and assess whether it's feasible technically, fiscally and logistically to screen much more commercial freight than at present.
The Sea-Tac testing also will experiment with ways to detect stowaways in air-freight containers, said a DHS official familiar with the program, who spoke on condition he not be identified.
Screeners will use devices designed to detect heartbeats and elevated levels of carbon dioxide, which humans produce when they exhale. Dogs also will be used to sniff out explosives, he said.
Worldwide, about half of all air freight is carried on passenger planes, with the rest on cargo-only planes flown by FedEx, UPS and many major airlines, said Ned Laird, founder and managing director of the Air Cargo Management Group, a Seattle-based research and advisory firm.
Researchers from DHS began observing air-cargo operations at Sea-Tac in September, the official said, "trying to model the rhythms of airport activity." He declined to say when the test screening will start but said it probably will run until early summer.
The results, along with those from the other two airports, will be reported to Congress, which would to decide on any new screening requirement for air cargo.
But Laird said the security benefit of screening all commercial cargo likely wouldn't be worth the extra time and expense.
"If somebody comes up with something that really works and is affordable, I don't think anyone would object to screening all air cargo," Laird said. "But we're spending an inordinate amount of taxpayer money to see if, by screening all freight, we could eliminate all risk.
"It's like saying we could never have another airplane crash if we just designed the planes better. There's always going to be some risk."
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