Too Many Holes in Air Cargo Security

Industry and governments need to follow through on their plans to tighten cargo security processes.

The conventional wisdom is that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, served as a “wake-up call” to the world as to the vulnerability of the global supply chain, especially at the various land, sea and airports where people and goods arrive and depart in large numbers. A 2003 GAO report revealed that if a weapon of mass destruction was detonated at a U.S. port, the cost to the nation’s supply chain would be as much as $1 trillion, which is the same amount spent on logistics in the country in an entire year. Surely, the lessons learned from 9/11 and subsequent lesser-scale attacks here and abroad since then would have spurred all responsible parties to action.

As we’re now learning in the wake of the narrowly averted Yemen plot to blow up a U.S.-bound cargo plane, we’ve been collectively hitting the “snooze” button on the various alarms that have been sounded over the past decade, particularly when it comes to inspecting air freight. Although airline passengers are variously stripped, scanned, puffed and patted down before getting on a plane, the cargo that often sits in the plane’s belly hold right beneath the passenger’s feet may never be inspected at all.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says that 100% of identified high-risk cargo on inbound passenger planes is screened before entering the United States. However, according to USA Today, only “about 20% of the 9 billion pounds of air cargo that comes from overseas each year is physically checked for bombs.” What’s more, as The Wall Street Journal reports, “There is no approved technology to screen cargo once it is loaded on the pallets used for shipments in wide-body aircraft. Those pallets hold 75% of belly cargo.”

Predictably, the issue of cargo security has emerged as a political football again, with extreme viewpoints on either side. Some are suggesting we implement 100% inspection of all cargo on any vehicle, no matter what the cost. Others are suggesting that adding more layers of security would effectively shut down the air transport industry, and as a result, “the terrorists win.”

Fortunately, if we’ve learned nothing else from 9/11, at least we’ve become more pragmatic. While the Yemen plot exposed some gaping holes in cargo security, it also illustrated the tremendous gains the intelligence agencies have made in uncovering terrorist plots, and then effectively sharing that data through the appropriate channels to foil the planned attacks.

One major effort underway is being coordinated by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), centered on directly addressing challenges related to cargo security. IATA’s Secure Freight program, for instance, is a data-driven approach to securing the supply chain by defining, auditing and registering secure operators that act in compliance with a quality assurance system.

“The events in Yemen have put cargo security at the top of our agenda,” says Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s director general and CEO. “The entire supply chain, from manufacturer to airport, has a responsibility for secure shipments. The supply chain approach must be driven by government and industry cooperation on investment, processes, technology and risk assessment.”

Even before the Yemen plot was uncovered, IATA had announced it was working in concert with such agencies as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on addressing five basic goals to improve international air safety:

1. Implement formal consultation with all airlines, including non-U.S. carriers.

2. Refine existing emergency orders to address the international environment.

3. Streamline the data collection process.

4. Strengthen government-to-government outreach for greater harmonization and coordination.

5. Develop a next-generation checkpoint.

Bisignani believes that 2010 has been a watershed year in terms of collaboration between the global air industry and governments on coordinating security responses. But he cautions that merely agreeing on common goals won’t be enough. “We must use this momentum,” he says, “to move from words and agreements, to actions and results.”

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