Airline passengers have become accustomed to federal security personnel and equipment scrutinizing their carry-on items and checked luggage, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks.
But what about cargo carried in compartments alongside baggage in the bellies of airliners?
Air cargo can be as benign as tropical fish, which are frequent flyers out of Tampa International Airport. Automobile air bags are classified as hazardous material, subject to special packing rules because they have an explosive actuator that activates the bag. Some items, such as fireworks, must be sent in cargo aircraft rather than passenger flights.
The key question on passengers' minds: Is monitoring belly cargo as stringent as monitoring passenger luggage?
The answer federal authorities give is that procedures vary between passenger and cargo scrutiny. No one will say any defense system can be made perfect.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which focuses on air cargo safety, and the Transportation Security Administration, which focuses on air cargo security, play roles in how air cargo can be shipped and how it is inspected.
The TSA, created after the Sept. 11 attacks, recently announced efforts to strengthen air cargo security by adding measures and making permanent some other practices.
The new measures designed to protect more than 50,000 tons of cargo transported aboard passenger and all-cargo aircraft each day include: Requiring background checks of 51,000 off-airport freight forwarder employees.
Extending secure areas of airports to include ramps and cargo facilities.
That will require full criminal background checks for an additional 50,000 cargo aircraft operator employees.
Requiring employees of more than 4,000 freight forwarders to attend enhanced security training courses developed by the TSA.
Consolidating 4,000 private industry "Known Shipper" lists into one central database managed by the TSA.
"The TSA will have more visibility into the activities of companies shipping on passenger aircraft, and [the central database will] permit more in-depth vetting of known shippers," said Christopher White, a TSA spokesman in Atlanta.
"Between that and requiring background checks of off-airport freight forwarder employees, we hope to significantly enhance air cargo security."
All cargo carried on passengers planes is consolidated and handled only by companies that have security programs meeting TSA requirements, White said.
"From the counter where a package is submitted to the airline employees who load the packages, everyone has a role in security," he said.
Depending on the situation, requirements vary.
"For example, if you were to walk up to an airline cargo facility and have a package flown from Atlanta to Tampa, that package would require an inspection before it could ever be loaded onto an aircraft," White said.
"In another example, suppose I am a shipper, and you and I have been doing business for years. You have qualified as a known shipper under TSA guidelines. The packages you submit to me for transit would not be screened to the same level as in the first example."
TSA tops its security program off with random inspections with officers assigned to more than 250 U.S. airports. The TSA also uses 420 canine explosive-detection teams, a 70 percent increase since 2003, whose work at U.S. airports includes random screening of cargo and surveillance of cargo facilities.
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The TSA recently announced efforts to strengthen air cargo security by adding measures and making permanent some other practices.
The new rule does not require widespread electronic screening of cargo.
The plan, originally proposed in Nov. 2004, includes new regulations for restricting access to sections of airports used for loading and unloading cargo.