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TSA looks to expedite screening for air cargo on US-bound passenger planes

Screening for all air cargo shipped to the US via commercial passenger planes must be in place by the end of 2011, under a TSA proposal. The Yemen bomb plot led TSA to accelerate its timetable.

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"TSA continues to work with the air cargo industry to implement the robust security measures with the least amount of impact on the flow of air cargo and mail inbound to the US," Mr. Fotenos wrote.

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Freight forwarders, who use the cargo holds of passenger aircraft to move thousands of tons of freight each day, have long resisted a requirement of 100 percent screening, arguing that it would throw a monkey wrench into the finely tuned global supply chain.

"International aviation authorities ... suggest that screening all international cargo may not improve security and would likely cause economic damage to our slowly recovering economy," Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, wrote in an e-mail. "TSA is aware of the challenges and criticisms of the Congressionally-mandated screening regime, and we are hopeful they will thoughtfully address these during the comment period.” [Editor's note: The original paragraph has been changed to make clear who suggests that comprehensive cargo screening may not improve security.]

Freight forwarders, he said, prefer "risk-based freight assessments," in which air cargo is evaluated for higher-risk items that are then screened, rather than requiring screening of all items. In November, Mr. Fried urged Congress to "reject additional calls for 100 percent screening of inbound cargo."

After 9/11, Congress approved the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001. It required screening of "all passengers and property transported on passenger planes," including air cargo aboard those planes – about 7,500 tons per day.

By mid-2007, TSA had improved passenger screening but still wasn't doing the job with air cargo, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General said in a report titled "Transportation Security Administration’s Oversight of Passenger Aircraft Cargo Security Faces Significant Challenges." TSA oversight "does not provide assurance that air carriers are meeting congressionally-mandated goals," the report found. "Consequently, the process increases the opportunities for the carriage of explosives, incendiaries, and other dangerous devices on passenger aircraft."

To fix such problems, the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 mandated that the Department of Homeland Security (TSA is an arm of DHS) physically screen at least 50 percent of passenger aircraft cargo on both domestic and incoming foreign passenger flights to the US by February 2009. All such cargo was to be screened by August 2010.

Now the 100 percent target for international incoming cargo is Dec. 31, 2011.

Of course, TSA could simply refuse admittance to flights that are not inspected to its standards. But that could also produce acute economic hardship for passengers who would have to pay more to fly to the US without the economic bonus of cargo in the hold beneath their feet.

[Editor's note: The original version of the headline and subhead was changed to reflect the fact that TSA's action is a proposal.]

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