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.

By , Staff writer

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    A Boeing 747-400 cargo plane parked on the tarmac at Yantai Airport, east China's Shandong Province, on Dec. 29, 2010. The TSA is moving ahead, on a faster-than-expected timetable, to close a gap in security screening of international air cargo carried aboard US-bound passenger flights.
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The Transportation Security Administration is moving ahead, on a faster-than-expected timetable, to close a gap in security screening of international air cargo carried aboard US-bound passenger flights.

Air freight forwarders and members of the global shipping industry learned Friday that TSA appears poised to require them to screen, by year's end, 100 percent of such cargo bound for the United States. That would be two years sooner than expected.

Just last year, the TSA told Congress that screening 100 percent of international in-bound air cargo would be delayed until at least 2013. But TSA is looking to accelerate that timetable after the terrorist bombing attempt in late October, in which explosives were secreted inside printer cartridges sent from Yemen to Chicago – and were intended to blow up in cargo holds of passenger jets while they were in the air. [Editor's note: The last two paragraphs were changed post-publication to make clear that the requirement is not yet final.]

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Carriers now have 45 days to comment on the proposed mandate, with TSA reviewing industry comments before it makes the rule final.

A push to screen all cargo was a response to "the latest threats and the considerable progress made by industry in screening international inbound cargo," James Fotenos, a TSA spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. "TSA’s mission is to ensure the safety of the traveling public.... After the thwarted attempt by terrorists to ship explosives aboard aircraft headed to this country last October, TSA immediately took a number of steps to enhance security by tightening existing air cargo."

Among those steps for US-bound international flights, TSA ordered a ban on any cargo designated as "high risk." Other safeguards, meanwhile, heavily restricted small packages sent by mail, which often travel in the cargo holds of passenger aircraft.

The policies, combined with bad weather, meant that some people in the US waited weeks to get their packages, especially over Christmas when there was a big jump in the amount of intercontinental mail. In some cases, the US Postal Service was forced to reroute US-bound mail, putting it on air-cargo-only flights and even ships.

"I had a batch of items sent to the US on the 26th November that took ages," wrote Chocolatecatgirl, an eBay seller in Britain who sells items in the US. "One customer got snotty after 2 weeks and I had to refund."

Delays have lessened as mail volume has dropped – and as postal systems abroad have become familiar with US requirements, say US Postal Service and air cargo experts.

But will new air freight requirements cause the same kind of disruption with air cargo that occurred with small mailed packages in December?

"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.

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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