Airline passengers have scrambled for years to remove their shoes, overcoats and belt buckles at the metal detectors, while the cargo beneath them has oftentimes gone unscreened.
Now eight canines at Lambert Field are helping police screen every piece of cargo that leaves the airport in passenger planes, Lambert officials said Wednesday.
The airport hit the 100 percent screening mark in April after Airport Police Chief Paul Mason required Lambert's bomb-sniffing dogs to spend more time screening cargo and watching cargo areas. Lambert is one of very few airports nationwide to have 100 percent screening of cargo on passenger aircraft. The Transportation Security Administration does not require it.
Last November, the Government Accountability Office reported that the 23 billion pounds of cargo shipped by air every year was barely being checked.
All cargo shipped on passenger flights must be handled by companies that are "known shippers," meaning they have security programs that meet transportation safety agency guidelines. This spring, the transportation security agency also required background checks of 51,000 off-airport freight forwarder employees.
About 30 percent of cargo is shipped in passenger aircraft, according to the Air Transport Association.
Using canines to close screening gaps at Lambert has not meant spending less time elsewhere, such as terminals and airport parking garages, but instead requires better management and paying some overtime, Mason said.
"We're happy with what our canine teams have been able to accomplish," he added at a news conference inside the Southwest Airlines Air Cargo facility.
Lambert will get two more bomb-sniffing canines in September.
The security agency reimburses Lambert $50,000 a year for each bomb-sniffing dog, about 60 percent of what the airport spends on them and their handlers. The agency directed airports last spring to devote 25 percent of their canine patrols to screening cargo.
Inside the cargo facility, Benje, a German shepherd, sniffed boxes stacked on top of each other to demonstrate how he searches for explosives. He walked around them, jumped on top of them, and then sniffed them again. He found nothing.
The dogs visit airline cargo facilities at 5 a.m. daily and check all unscreened boxes. Canine teams do periodic screening throughout the day and a final one when the cargo holds close. Since the 100 percent screening protocol was instituted, Mason said, the canines haven't discovered any explosive material.
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