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Air Cargo Security Deadline in Doubt

THE 2007 LAW aimed at implementing recommendations of the 9/11 Commission required that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implement 100 percent screening of cargo imported via ship container or carried in the belly of passenger airliners.

Last year the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told its congressional overseers that it would not meet the law’s 2012 deadline for universal ship container screening, but the agency had told lawmakers that it was on track to satisfy its August 2010 deadline for air cargo screening. Now the TSA is backtracking on that as well.

The TSA and its industry partners, which include shippers, airlines, and freight forwarders, who generally collect and consolidate material for bulk shipment, have successfully met two of the law’s preliminary deadlines.

Last fall, the industry achieved 100 percent screening of cargo carried by narrow-body jets, like Boeing 737s. The planes typically only fly domestically and carry smaller volumes of cargo in the smallest of the unit load devices (ULDs), which are metal cases airlines use to organize cargo. The smaller ULDs may be no larger than a filing cabinet, but other ULDs, like those used on jumbo jets, are formed to fit into an airplane’s fuselage in segments and can hold more than 300 cubic feet of cargo.

In February, the TSA stated that it had met the law’s deadline for 50 percent screening of all belly cargo, but it did not present supporting data to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which is responsible for monitoring compliance.

Achieving the 100 percent goal may be impossible, however, given that the U.S. exempts many countries from its own stringent air cargo screening standards. The specific countries that enjoy exemptions and the percentage of U.S.-bound air cargo they account for are designated sensitive security information and, thus, not disclosed by the TSA.

“I don’t think you could get to that 100 percent, as most people would define it, which is 100 percent of every piece of cargo on every commercial passenger aircraft, because some of that cargo is coming in from overseas, and it may not be screened with the technology that you demand here,” James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of America, recently told lawmakers.