The security week that was: 07/09/10 (Air cargo screening)

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Ready or not for 100% air cargo screening

I have had mixed thoughts and a lot of questions about the push toward 100 percent cargo screening mandate pushed by TSA. To be clear, it's best to qualify this mandate. First, it applies to commercial passenger airplanes, not all cargo. So we really should be calling it 100 percent commercial passenger airplane cargo screening, but you get point.

Let's give a little history. Air cargo screening became mandated by the 9/11 Commission Act (2001), and it required that 50 percent of the commercial cargo going aboard commercial passenger jets be screened by February 2009. That was the first deadline. The second deadline is at the beginning of next month, August 2010, and it requires that 100 percent of commercial cargo aboard these passenger jets be screened. In between those two deadlines, there was also an expectation that 75 percent of cargo be screened by May 2010.

The mandate doesn't specify the method of screening and allows for actual hand screening (physical screening) or "non-intrusive" screening using X-ray and other scanning types of systems. The mandate requires that the screening for this cargo basically be the same as the TSA expects for passengers' bags and carry-on items.

We're closing in on the August 2010, 100 percent screening requirement deadline, and this is serious business. It's a major commercial enterprise that means cargo shipping companies are investing in high-end scanning technologies.

The GAO doesn't think that the TSA will meet this August 1, 2010, deadline. Here's what the GAO lists as likely impediments:
1. Staffing – The GAO predicts the TSA is not staffed properly and hasn't done the staffing studies to be able to staff properly
2. Technology – While there are scanning technologies for smaller shipments, some of the largest shipments come on pallets, and there is not yet an approved technology for screening pallet-style shipments. Of course, pallet style shipments would be the most difficult to hand-screen, so technology is the most obvious route.
3. Contingency planning – If they can't meet the 100 percent air cargo screening requirement, the GAO thinks that TSA needs a contingency plan on how to handle this unscreened cargo. And, according to the GAO, the TSA doesn't have such a plan.

I noted in the beginning of this column that I have had mixed thoughts and questions about 100 percent cargo screening. Years ago, when this was first proposed and when the TSA was ramping up to do 50 percent cargo screening, I asked a number of aviation security experts if 100 percent screening of air cargo was really practical, and most said that they felt that it wasn't. At the time, there wasn't a full array of automatic scanning technologies, and clearly the processes and personnel weren't in place to handle such a task. Some of that has changed, even if the GAO is saying the changes aren't yet enough for 100 percent screening.

What some of these aviation security experts told me is that it would be better for the TSA to implement a targeted screening program, one that focused screening on cargo that was more likely to be a security risk. Perhaps that would include undeclared cargo, or maybe it would include cargo from nations known to have security and/or terrorism problems. Maybe it would include cargo from shippers that weren't as trusted as their peers. That line of thought seemed to make a lot of sense, and I suspect that it's still the kind of approach that will have to be used in some sort of contingency plan if the TSA is not able to complete 100 percent screening.

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