Friendly skies?

If you're like most people, air travel comes with a twinge of the jitters, if not more. Anyone who denies the latent fear of flying need only look at the 24/7 coverage of the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Express Flight 3407. The endless speculation about the crash's possible causes, about the flight's final moments and the relentless media coverage panders to our worst fears.

Hardly mentioned was that the 49 people aboard who perished near Buffalo represented the first U.S. commercial airline fatality in 2 years -- including all domestic and international flights. More than 100,000 people typically die in automobile accidents over that stretch of time -- more than 120 each day.

That is the psychology of air travel. All the admonishments about the risks one faces when getting behind the wheel of a car will never equal the dreadful feeling that can arise from putting oneås life in the hands of mechanics, air traffic controllers and a crew you've never met.

Itås not just the media that plays to our fears of air travel; Congress does it, too. In so doing, it required, over Bush administration objections, that all cargo moving on passenger flights be screened by August 2010. From a practical standpoint, the rule was probably unnecessary; the air cargo industry polices itself, knowing that the day a shipment detonates is the day the industry is shut out of passenger capacity forever. The Transportation Security Administration swears by its canines, and it may be true that man's best friend would do the job. But for the public, which abandoned air travel in droves after 9/11, and not just because of the recession, that was never going to be enough.

Not that it will make a public already rattled by the economy rest any easier, but it does appear that the 100 percent screening mandate will be achieved by the deadline, if not before. The 2007 Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act, which included the 100 percent mandate, also required that half of all air cargo packages be screened by Feb. 1 of this year. That deadline was easily met by airlines' own screening efforts thanks to a requirement that all cargo moving on narrowbody aircraft had to be screened as of last October. Now the push is on to get to 100 percent, which will apply to all flights originating in the U.S.

The idea is not for the TSA to inspect cargo like it does passengers, but instead to push screening out to the industry and, as much as possible, away from the airport. Under the Certified Cargo Screening Program, 169 facilities located at off-airport forwarder, shipper and third-party screener sites called "car washes" because of their similarity, have been brought on line, and 10 more are being certified each day, said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association.

Moving the bulk of screening off the airport avoids bottlenecks at the airport that can disrupt the just-in-time flow of air cargo, Fried said. Assuming the off-airport facilities continue to open under a successful rollout of the cargo-screening program, "we will be able to meet the 100 percent mandate on time," he said.

But the debate and operational challenge to achieve the scan-all mandate is not over. Small mom-and-pop forwarders represent more than 90 percent of the 4,200 U.S. indirect air carriers (although they handle a small percentage of the tonnage), and that group "is very, very anxious," said Michael Whatley, director of the Air Cargo Security Alliance, a small forwarder group. Airlines that donåt want to bear the expense of screening equipment are pulling out of regional airports such as Colorado Springs, forcing forwarders to truck cargo over longer distances to and from gateway airports.

The small forwarders dislike the third-party "car wash" because it requires two trips to get goods to the airport and can create lapses in security, Whatley said. They also don't want to have to use competitors for screening or be solely reliant on airlines. Instead, they want an option under which the TSA would screen a limited amount of cargo at airports for a fee.

The other big issue is operational. Getting to 100 percent means scanning all the cargo moving in pallets on international flights. The technology doesnåt exist to scan pallets containing multiple commodities, so each pallet must be dismantled and each package screened. That aside, there is progress in air cargo security.

Peter Tirschwell is senior adviser of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 973-848-7158, or at ptirschwell@joc.com.

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