Air Cargo Security: Is the Industry Ready for a New Mandate?

William McGuire is president of Global Security Associates, a New York-based security firm that handles, among other details, airline security operations. SecurityInfoWatch.com caught up with McGuire by phone in the midst of a New York security detail to talk about what how House legislation for 100 percent air cargo screening would impact the security operations of airlines and airports.

Kip Hawley has come out fairly negatively against 100 percent screening of air cargo that would go on passenger planes. Having worked in that industry, do you agree with his assessment?

I don't believe that 100 percent screening is exactly the way to go. And the reason I say that is that there needs to be a little more thought involved. It seems to be "all or nothing" -- either we screen everything or we don't screen anything.

There are certain things that travel through air cargo that don't necessarily have to be screened. Right now they have the known and unknown shipper program, not necessarily the best option, but it was the best option at the time 10 years ago when they implemented it.

You should almost do profiling of cargo. We should ask, what is the cargo being shipped and where is it being shipped to? You have the banking industry that's shipping money all the time. Does that need to be screened every time? No. You have the artwork industry and museums - do their shipments always need to be screened? I'd say no. But you have the guy who shows up at the counter with his package and he's going to ship it to somebody oversees, and does that need to be screened? Yes, absolutely.

In terms of the cargo that is going on planes, how much is coming from counter deliveries? Is that a small or large percentage?

It's a small percentage. Airlines that are shipping cargo, they typically don't accept cargo at the counter. You have to go through a broker, someone who is a known shipper to an airline. But I can go up to any freight loader and ship something through them.

Would this screening need to be done at the airport before it is loaded onto the plane?

Yes, that's the idea.

Do we have really have the secured facilities to do a proper cargo screening and do we have enough screening technology available now to go with this 100 percent procedure that's being suggested?

The simple and quickest answer is "Yes.".

Baggage that used to go on airlines before 9/11 simply wasn't screened. It went on a belt and it went into the mystery bowels of the airport and people just assumed that it was checked before it went on the airplane. People were being screened; they were being screened for weapons. They weren't screened for explosives - they were screened for weapons like guns and knives basically.

But then the whole issue of box cutters and other weapons came into play. The bad guys got more creative so we also needed to get more creative. Screening operations got more sophisticated, and screening of baggage now goes on. They used to say, "It will kill the industry," and "We don't have the infrastructure at the terminals." Well, you know what? They got it done. So I think everyone needs to get together on it. Government needs to say it needs to be done, and they need to help get this done. But the airlines are the ones that need to push and say "We need to do this and we need to do this in a cost effective way." And I think there is a cost effective way to do this, but there needs to be some thought behind it.

One of the misconceptions in the consumer world is that this is new, but there is the Air Cargo Explosives Detection pilot program that has been in place for about a year now. Can you offer any insight into this program?

I know that the program is there, but I don't have any insight to say whether it's working. It certainly is a step in the right direction.

Besides that pilot program, are you aware of any airports and airlines that are already doing this cargo screening?

Absolutely. JFK is an example. Most of the international carriers have X-ray machines in their cargo areas. The international carriers are way ahead of domestic carriers because it's already been done in Europe. So here, the American carriers need to wise up and get their act together before something happens and the industry takes another nose dive.

If we go to a full-fledge air cargo screening process, would it really slow down the shipping process at all?

I don't think so. I think if we go to 100 percent screening, and depending on the type of screening that is done, it could slow down things. But if we use technology and trace detection, then I think we can do it. We can swab every package that comes through the door and detect for explosives in a matter of seconds. So, I think I would say it can be done and it can be done in a timely fashion.

Not only will there be technology needs, but there will be personnel needed to aid the process of handling packages and performing necessary secondary screenings. Can we get the personnel together and trained to meet the proposed 2009 deadline that the House of Representatives has tossed out there?

I think so. They've got two years to get it done. But they'd need to know now to do it. If they wait until the last minute to do it, then there won't be enough time. If you tell everyone now, this is the deadline and it's not up for debate, then they can do that.

This in theory would be a TSA-managed screening project, but do you think there is room and reason to outsource to TSA-approved companies?

I absolutely do, and not just because I'm in private business. I think the government does a fantastic job. I actually think the TSA does a fantastic job. For what they have to do, I give them 100 percent credit. They came in, and it's not the easiest job to stand there and screen someone or something for 8 or 10 hours per day. It's difficult. They're having to ask passengers to take off their shoes, and they don't like that. But this is much better than what we had before 9/11. It was left up to the airlines. It was a low-wage operation that went to the lowest bidder.

I think the government needs to have oversight and manage the program. I think the government needs to mandate what the private industry would be paid in order to recruit and hire good quality personnel. And this is where it becomes essential. If you're just going to have a minimum wage position, you might as well not even have it. You need to get training involved. There has to be initial training and recurrent training. There has to be oversight by the government that these people know what they're doing and that the training is being implemented.

The government needs oversight and management locally and nationally. And that's similar to the pilot project in San Francisco. The TSA basically contracts out to a private company at the San Francisco airport, and it works well. In fact, it works extremely well. There are a few other pilot programs going around the country at other airports where this is also working. If there's good oversight by the government, then it can be contracted out. If we leave it up to airlines, then they're just looking at bottom line and trying to make a profit at the end of the day - which isn't a bad thing - but they need to look at the real picture.

Loading