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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.

While advancing dramatically in recent years, screening technology has not kept pace with Congress’s demands. The technological challenges stem primarily from the size of pallets and large ULDs carried on jumbo jets, how densely they are packed, and the speed of today’s “just in time” trade.

The advanced screening devices, such as those using backscatter and millimeter-wave scanning, on the TSA’s Qualified Product List (QPL), are limited primarily to those engineered to screen carry-on baggage—the agency’s primary focus since 9-11. While larger machines exist in the market, such as backscatter devices capable of scanning an entire truck, they are not yet on the QPL for air cargo scanning; the shipping sector is reluctant to invest in hardware that might not earn the TSA’s stamp of approval.

Another issue is speed. An astute security officer monitoring a sophisticated screening device, like a typical magnetic-resonance imaging-style explosives detection machine, might spot a suspicious item after going through scanner images, “slice-by-slice.” But, May said, “six pallets an hour” is unacceptable. “We need something that really moves.”

Large screening devices that can operate fast enough that they won’t delay commercial airline flights are still “a few years away,” says Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association.

Trained canines, which are a widely preferred means of explosive detection, aren’t available in the numbers needed to satisfy the demand created by the law, officials say.

To get around these barriers to meeting the screening requirement, TSA is working to move the screening process away from airports and “upstream” to freight forwarders and shippers themselves. That alternative is preferred by companies selling commodities like fresh food and pharmaceuticals, because companies would rather those shipments not be opened until they reach the buyer.

Shippers that can voluntarily satisfy TSA screening requirements and ensure a secure chain of custody from their door to the airplane could avoid outside inspection and help prevent airport backups.