A few years before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a program aimed at better identifying truck drivers who deliver cargo to O'Hare International Airport was tested.
Instead of simply flashing a driver's license and cargo manifest, drivers with 52 trucking companies took part in a fingerprint biometric-based security access system.
Supporters said it eliminated the human error inherent in visual identification of a driver. Despite good reviews in a July 1999 report, the program failed to get past the test stage.
And therein lies an ongoing problem.
Critics say good ideas, followed by indecision and inaction, leave air cargo highly vulnerable at a time when the amount of cargo being shipped on passenger and freight airplanes is on the rise.
"There are holes in the system you could literally drive a truck through," said Terrence Brunner, director of the Chicago-area Aviation Integrity Project.
After years of debate, the Transportation Security Administration is about to issue a final rule on cargo security in an attempt to keep explosives off passenger planes and protect cargo-only aircraft from hijackers.
The TSA first considered 670 industry responses, including some from state and national trucking groups, that outlined contrasting suggestions for, but one common concern about, the security enhancements: Who would foot the bill?
A final mandate is expected early next year.
The trucking industry is a crucial link in the air cargo supply chain.
Drivers still are required only to provide a valid license and cargo list for airport deliveries. Only those who transport hazardous materials are required to be fingerprinted, undergo criminal background checks and have their names compared against a confidential terrorist list.
That soon might change. The TSA is considering expanding security requirements so all truckers with unrestricted access to air cargo undergo some form of a criminal background check.
That proposal has been met with skepticism by trucking groups for financial and logistical reasons because many truckers are independent contractors rather than full-time employees.
Gary McLaughlin has seen a lot of changes in the 20 years he's co-owned Chicago Air Cargo. The Bensenville company has 15 regular drivers who travel to O'Hare and Midway. He argues security rules already have improved.
Now, by the time one of his drivers picks up cargo, a middle man known as the freight forwarder is supposed to have ensured the haul is from what's called a known shipper.
Known shippers are those listed on an approved database as having good relations with airlines, but few other details about the list are revealed for security reasons.
McLaughlin said TSA officials have audited his air cargo business twice since Sept. 11 without discovering a security breach. For example, they'll pose as a firm desperate to ship last- minute.
In another scenario, a passenger with too heavy of a package at check-in approached a driver outside the airport seeking help.
In both instances, McLaughlin said, the interested party instead must be referred to a freight forwarder.
"You have to follow the rules," he said. "If you don't have identification, you're going to have a hard time tendering freight to the airline. When you do, your doors have to be locked and you can't leave your vehicle at any time or you get fined. It's extremely strict."
Still, another area of concern is securing the routes the truckers travel to reach airports.
A potential terrorist could follow drivers and tamper with their cargo loads along the way to the airport.
The TSA has tested different options to address the problem.
"I don't think there's any procedures that are airtight, but they've definitely ratcheted it up and put a lot of pressure on the airlines to check drivers," McLaughlin said.
Back in 1997, the Federal Aviation Administration awarded O'Hare a $1.5 million research grant to develop and test the smart card/biometric system.
It used fingerprint biometrics to verify the identity of truck drivers delivering cargo to the airport, as well as information encoded on a card to match the driver with cargo.
Although the program never advanced past the test stage, TSA officials, who took over such security issues for the FAA, said they haven't abandoned biometrics.
The agency has completed at least 10 of its 15 pilot programs at various airports, including O'Hare, as well as at ports and rail facilities.
One program attempts to better control access to cargo areas with radio frequency identification technology. Sensors are placed all around the area and only people with special identification can get inside.
"We are very tied into biometrics as a use in access control," said Darrin Kayser, a TSA spokesman in Washington.
"There's new technologies emerging all the time. We want to make sure it's the best approach."
After all of the pilot projects are complete, TSA's final rule will be issued. It is expected in 2006, which is after an August 2005 deadline set by Congress. As for criticism the agency hasn't moved fast enough, Kayser said the TSA's mindset is to work "smarter, not faster."
Others agreed. "We have to have a little bit of patience," said Hank Krakowski, an O'Hare-based pilot who is United Airline's vice president of corporate safety, security and quality assurance.
"They're looking at everything. I do think the processes we're using right now have worked well.
"I think the one area we would hope to rely on more is the biometric piece," he said about the proposed changes.