A Primer On Air Cargo Security

Sept. 25, 2012
The industry readies for a December TSA deadline to screen all cargo on international passenger planes bound for the United States.

On Dec. 3, the Department of Homeland Security will enforce a new regulation requiring air carriers to conduct 100 percent cargo screening on international inbound passenger flights. This regulation has been in the making since 2007 and has already been pushed back once before after heated air cargo industry debate. And Transportation Security Administration officials told Congress in 2010 that the rule might not be put in place until 2013.
But the TSA says this time the deadline is firm. So how prepared is the cargo industry? What still needs to be done? And what’s the difference between “screening” and “scanning,” anyway?

How did we get here?

The initiative was mandated as part of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act that President George W. Bush signed into law in August 2007.
Originally, legislators set a deadline of August 2010 to screen all such air cargo. The law required the Department of Homeland Security to establish a system that would screen all cargo transported on passenger aircraft to “commensurate” with the level of security used for checked baggage.

‘Commensurate?’ Please explain?

The law does require all air cargo to be screened by the TSA at the “piece level” prior to transport on passenger aircraft for flight inbound for the United States.
Keep in mind, this 100 percent screening cargo rule is already in force for domestic passenger flights and has been since 2010. Also, according to the TSA more than 80 percent of cargo on international passenger flights bound for the United States is also being screened, up from around 65 percent two years ago.

But cargo isn’t exactly a suitcase. How can this be screened like passenger bags?

Like a lot of laws, legislators offered little direction on how to define “screening,” and set the burden on the aviation industry and its related service business, such as the air cargo industry.
At the moment, the TSA provides shippers with a list of approved screening technologies:

  • X-ray.
  • Explosives detection.
  • Explosives trace detection.
  • Metal detection.

But much of this technology on the market today is designed to screen baggage not cargo – particularly when it’s already been palletized.

So how is the industry expected to screen cargo?

There are a couple of programs in place, including many supported by the air cargo industry. For example, the TSA’s National Cargo Security Program recognizes other nation’s air cargo screening security programs. In other words, what’s done other there is up to par with what we’d do here.
Last June, the United States and the European Union, Switzerland and Canada agreed to recognize each other’s air cargo security procedures.
“We strongly support efforts to enhance security of the air cargo supply chain without unduly disrupting vital commercial flows,” says Michael Steen, chairman of the International Air Cargo Association. “Mutual recognition of robust security regimes is an important way to further this goal so we commend U.S., EU, Swiss and Canadian authorities for their recent announcements in this regard. TIACA will continue to support additional efforts to mutually recognize security regimes and to implement global, harmonized standards.”

How different is what we do in the United States compared to what, say, the Europeans do?

The entire world stepped up cargo security measures after the 9/11 attacks.
The TSA, for example, imposed strict protocols at the last departure point to (and for that matter, “from”) the United States. Meanwhile, the European approach focused on ensuring that cargo, once it had been screened at its point of origin, could not be tampered with at any point along its route.
Prior to the agreement, having these two procedures meant separating cargo bound the United States in airport warehouses for special processing that duplicated previous work and administrative paperwork. The costs of all this extra effort were passed on to the customers in the form of higher shipping rates. The additional handling procedures all but guaranteed longer shipping time, too.
“Air cargo is by definition naturally urgent,” says Slim Kallas, the EU’s transportation commissioner. “Cutting out the duplication of security procedures will mean huge savings for cargo operators in terms of time and money.”

Any other countries?

Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association says there are currently 20 more agreements in the pipeline.
“The absence of a screening agreement with the U.S. should not imply that those countries are failing to inspect cargo on U.S.-bound planes,” he says. “All countries are taking steps to secure departing flights …, but these steps may not be consistent with current U.S. practices.”

That’s great. But cargo is still not a suitcase.

“Screened” doesn’t necessary mean “scanned” through an X-ray machine or other device. Screened can mean evaluating the contents, sender and destination of packages and doing more intensive inspections on high-risk cargo.
Consider what the industry did to screen 100 percent of cargo on domestic flights for at least a direction.
While U.S. politicians have pushed for physical inspection of every parcel and pallet that enters an aircraft, the global airfreight industry has argued that such an approach risks paralyzing some 40 percent of the value of global trade.
The TSA’s Certified Cargo Screening Program for domestic flights includes procedures for known and established shippers, deploying explosive detection canine team and conducting covert tests and surprise inspections of cargo operations.
CCSP facility must be approved by TSA and adhere to strict security standards, including physical access controls, personnel security and screening of prospective employees and contractors. A secure chain of custody must also be established from the shipping facility to the aircraft.
Scanning air cargo represents a huge challenge since a typical container may have been consolidated into shrink-wrapped pallets before it arrives at an airport. As a result, the Air forwarders Association says more than half of cargo screening in the United States is conducted at off-airport sites. The trade group says screening of smaller pieces of cargo at these sites before pallet consolidation is one reason the TSA met the 100 percent screening mandate for domestic cargo on schedule.

So, in other words, certify shippers and those procedures before a shipment reaches the airport?

Yes. In fact, airports say they don’t have the physical space to rip apart every container. It doesn’t need to be “scanned” like baggage. Almost all the security with baggage is focused on one moment – when passengers hand over bags at the airport. There isn’t any one such moment with cargo, but there are a lot of little moments along the way.
While U.S. law stops at the border, other countries could adopt this as its model. Besides, multinational forwarders and shippers, many of which may already be regulated in the United States by the TSA through the CCSP, command a lion’s share of the international air cargo business.

Any other programs in the works?

For its part, the cargo industry also has thrown its support for the Air Cargo Advanced Screening pilot program that just started in 2011. With this program, airlines send manifest data to U.S. Customs and Border Protection several hours before departure, which should further bolster inbound screening.
The ACAS, a joint effort between CBP and the TSA, is a voluntary initiative allowing carriers, forwarders and shippers to submit electronic data about cargo before it is shipped. By analyzing this data in advance, TSA and CBP have a fast and efficient way to screen vast amounts of cargo and zero-in more quickly on the precise items requiring further scrutiny.
“The more intelligence that we can have on the front end, the better informed judgments we can make as to distinguish between known shippers and shipments by those who are unknown, said John Pistole, TSA administrator at the recent AirCargo 2012 conference.
These are just a couple of programs for the actual shipping process, but there are other initiatives to standardize parts of that process in order to make communications around the world easier.
There are a number of elements within this philosophy, one of which is the need for standardized electronic data. The International Air Transport Association, for example, has been working through the recently established Cargo Security Task Force with the World Customs Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization as well as carriers and regulators worldwide to harmonize these electronic and other shipping requirements.

So how would you sum this all up?

The key is to identify trusted shippers – and then focus on screening suspicious packages. And by that we mean, pulling it out of mass of otherwise legitimate container. The air cargo industry advocates a system of electronic documentation that assures that nobody tampers with cargo as it moves through the supply chain.

About the Author

Steve Smith | Editor