By now, airline passengers have mostly become used to the more-thorough post-9/11 checks by federal screeners at the nation's airports. But a big gap in airport security - checking cargo - needs closing to help keep those passengers safe. In fact, 22 percent of all cargo is transported on passenger flights.
The story of the Brooklyn man who successfully shipped himself recently from New York to Dallas - undetected on a cargo plane - is reason enough to beef up cargo security on both passenger and nonpassenger flights. It's all too easy to imagine a would-be terrorist employing a similar method. Also worrisome: The cargo company the man used says it's been following all cargo-security procedures the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requires.
A "known shipper" program is about all that's in place so far to screen the 2.8 million tons of cargo loaded on passenger planes each year. That program is designed to ensure that only cargo coming from preapproved shippers is allowed on passenger flights.
An amendment to the Homeland Security funding bill, sponsored by Reps. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts and Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut, would require all cargo placed on passenger planes to be individually screened. It would also prohibit the Bush administration from implementing any plan that does not include such screening. House and Senate negotiators changed the Markey-Shays deadline for cargo screening on passenger flights from November to "the earliest date possible."
What's delayed such a measure up to now is the question of cost. Opponents say the cost of individual screening of cargo containers would lead to job losses in the airline industry. Proponents argue that without such cargo screening planes remain an attractive terrorist target. The Bush administration is reportedly considering background checks for cargo handlers and stepped-up checking of shippers as ways to handle the problem. But the same airlines that once complained they couldn't implement 100 percent of baggage screening in 2001 have found a way to work with the TSA with relative efficiency.
Setting a firm date for thorough cargo screening on passenger planes, and coming up with the money to pay for the process are the best way to secure airplanes and the flying public.