Homeland Security begins tougher security measures for U.S.-bound air cargo

February will mark the start of new guidelines for air cargo. A congressional mandate issued in 2007 requires the Transportation Security Administration to screen 50 percent of all cargo on board passenger aircraft. The mandate goes further to require 100 percent inspection by August 2010.

As the deadline looms, the requirement is not without its concerns. Some companies, including fruit growers, are concerned about what the new rules will mean for their shipments, which need to happen in a timely manner. P.J. Crowley, a senior fellow and director of homeland security at American Progress, spoke with CSO about the changes, why they are necessary, and what they mean for companies.

This mandate is specifically for cargo shipped aboard passenger planes. Why is that? There are issues when you think of A Fed Ex airplane or a UPS airplane. The question there is whether or not someone can use cargo to gain access to the plane and hijack it.

But that’s a separate issue. I think it is appropriate to focus on passenger airplanes because we have taken very meaningful steps to secure the passengers who go on commercial aircraft and the baggage that goes on a passenger aircraft. But there is a different standard today for cargo that goes into the same airplane. That, to me, is a gap that needs to be closed.

The imperative to focus on air cargo remains very significant. The fact is we have done a great deal for security passenger and their luggage. But we have done far less regarding air cargo. And passenger air travel is linked to global economy in a way that all cargo aircraft are not. There is a threat to cargo aircraft. But I think it’s different and its lower.

Does the 50 percent goal in February go far enough? The law says TSA should meet the 50 percent mandate by February 2009. Every indication is that they will meet that milestone. Then the law mandates 100 percent inspection by August 2010. That is going to be problematic. Getting to 100 percent will involve some things that will be beyond TSA control.

I agree with the 100 percent mandate. I think that is the right direction to go in. If we are going to interrogate every passenger that goes on an aircraft, and screen every piece of luggage that goes on, there is no reason we should treat air cargo differently. I think the focus on avaition security is certainly appropriate. Based on everything we know, when terrorists seek to attack the US or one of our allies, they either go toward passenger aviation or toward transit. Those are two most significant means through which people have been attacking the US for a number of years. So the focus is right.

But the question is: Who should we do this? In terms of passengers and luggage the decision in 2001 was this should be shifted from being a private sector responsibility to a government responsibility. You can debate whether that was right course. Regardless, it is the course now and it is certainly not the only one. For cargo, TSA is looking to have the private sector screen as a means of protecting supply chains.

I think that is a reasonable course of action, although it obviously has some vulnerabilities attached to it.

TSAs answer is CCSP: The Certified Cargo Shipping Program. Facilities, such as warehouses and airports, can voluntarily enroll to become certified shipping facilities. Those will be places where equipment can be positioned that has been certified by TSA.

It does present some challenges. Since you are talking about not just domestic, but international, too, it will take even longer than the time available to negotiate new standards with our major trading partners or international bodies that oversee aviation.

That is the primary reason why TSA will probably fall short of the 100 percent guideline by next year.
You mentioned the vulnerabilities attached to allowing the private sector to do the screening.

What are those? The central risk is the insider threat. When you look at global supply chains, you literally have hundreds of thousands of people associated with those supply chains. So, how good is your background check? And the second question is: What is the capacity of the government to do effective oversight?

Obviously we are experiencing in the broader economic realm challenges that at least in part were brought on by insufficient oversight. TSA currently devotes roughly 450 people to the oversight of air cargo supply chains. That’s not a lot of people. That is one person per airport.

The alternative obviously is have security checkpoints at or near the airport, manned by government employees. We mentioned that in a 2007 report. Our estimate was 4000 additional screeners would be necessary.

It can be done that way. Pilots have been done that show it can be done. But there is one caveat. The so-called built up cargo is very hard to inspect. So it was our judgment in the report that in the foreseeable future we would need a combination of government inspection and private sector certified shippers. And you are really arguing over the balance.

At all small airports today, if you walk up to a counter with a small package it is put through screening machine just as baggage is. Some of this will improve over time as you do more in-line baggage lanes at major airports. But one technical problem is if you have cookie sheet or pallet that has been built up at a facility before it reaches the airport, there is no technology today that can really look through that kind of built up dense cargo. So, for that, you would need to have some kind of certified shipper program with effective custody over that shipment between the dock and the airplane.

Many have criticized port cargo security in the US as poor. Is it your opinion this mandate will make air cargo security better than the state of port cargo security? Part of this is changing the mindset. In this line of work, there is a level of theft is perceived to be the cost of doing business. And then there is a group of people that recognize the importance of security but there answer is walk dog past package and call it secure. So I think there does need to be a change of mindset that this is important.

The old ways of doing business are just simply not good enough. The major players in air cargo business know this. The smaller players are concerned they are going to get squeezed. There is a cost involved here. But is the aviation system still one of the most likely vectors through which a terrorist might try and attack the United States? The answer is yes.

The measure is not without criticism. Certain kinds of industry, fruit growers as one example, are concerned this heighten screening will be bad for business. What can we tell them? What business doesn’t care about costs?

Security is one way of thinking about it. Product assurance is one way of thinking about it. If you are a fruit grower, you want your product to get in the hands of consumers before it spoils. Security is important to you by having a supply chain that functions the way you want it to and is timely. So part of it is changing the mindset here. Call it business continuity.

Call it whatever you want. Business has an interest in making sure operations go on uninterrupted. I think that as long as a business knows who is involved in their supply chain, they can vouch for the background of those people. If there is anomaly, with information sharing they can go back and figure out what went wrong?

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