WASHINGTON — The Transportation Security Administration is launching a program that for the first time aims to screen all cargo on passenger airplanes.
The effort begins this summer in major cities and could lead to longer delivery times for packages shipped through the air. It seeks to close a hole that allows millions of packages to be carried under passenger cabins without being checked for bombs.
Manufacturers such as Dell and others rely on passenger planes to deliver tons of freight, such as computers and auto parts, to retailers.
A crucial part of the plan is that it will rely on packing companies to volunteer to screen cargo they deliver to airports. Companies that sign up will have to buy and run screening machines and face TSA regulation -- which could deter volunteers.
"The dangers are that not enough people will sign up for it," said Steve Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association. "You will get rid of 'just-in-time delivery' if this doesn't work."
The move to screen the 250 million freight packages carried each year by passenger airlines comes after government audits criticized cargo security. The TSA uses a computer to identify packages for scrutiny, and requires passenger airlines to screen some cargo.
A Homeland Security report last year said the TSA did a poor job overseeing airline screening.
Cargo airlines, which carried 93 percent of the 27 billion pounds of air freight in 2007, are not part of the TSA's new effort and are seen as less of a terrorist target. US mail on passenger planes also is excluded.
A law enacted last year requires that all passenger-plane cargo be screened, starting in 2010.
Most screening would be done by the 12,000 companies that truck goods from manufacturing plants to airports. The companies, called freight forwarders, would screen packages with X-ray machines and explosive sensors in warehouses where they are packed into large containers that are driven to nearby airports, TSA Assistant Administrator John Sammon said. Manufacturers also would screen boxes in factories.
The goal is to move screening away from airport cargo facilities, which are too small to check all freight, Sammon said. There is no plan for the TSA to pay for screening equipment or screeners, which Congress has said could cost $3.75 billion over 10 years.
Brandon Fried, president of the Airforwarders Association, said the program "will work because you're spreading security throughout the supply chain." He said some forwarders won't buy screening equipment.
Forwarders that don't screen "may not be in the business five years from now," Sammon said. "The forwarders who want to do well will buy the equipment."