For those in the air cargo industry, 2011 was a year spent taking inventory of progress on enhancing national security in the wake of the 10-year anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. The commemoration of September 11 combined with the more recent memory of the October 2010 air cargo bombing attempts out of Yemen not only raised national security concerns to new levels, but also renewed interest from Capitol Hill and the public about what has been done to improve air cargo security in the past 10 years.
In the fall, the Transportation Security Administration quietly announced a delay in the 100 percent-screening requirement on international air cargo, originally mandated for completion by the end of 2011. Despite efforts to keep the announcement under the media radar, word eventually leaked out, causing concern in Congress. Some lawmakers issued a letter of concern to the TSA, demanding an explanation of the delay and new timeline.
International inbound screening of cargo on passenger planes has long been a challenge of the TSA because the agency’s jurisdiction confines itself to the United States. Despite an earlier promise to have harmonization agreements with other countries in place by the end of 2010, the realization of this immense challenge soon became apparent.
Despite the increased congressional pressure and the quiet announcement of the deadline extension, the delay did not come as a surprise to the Airforwarders Association. Based on the association’s ongoing regular communication with TSA staff, we knew that only a small number of signed agreements had been reached. However, we also knew the TSA has made significant progress with most major countries shipping 80 percent of the cargo destined for the United States. We expect this progress to continue with the TSA ultimately reaching its goal in the near future.
We are extremely encouraged about the re-establishment of the Aviation Security Advisory Committee and its appointment as a representative to this important assembly. The committee includes several aviation stakeholder groups, such as shippers, victims groups, pilots, flight attendants and airports. The secretary of homeland security has determined the re-establishment of the ASAC is necessary and is in the public interest in connection with the performance duties of the TSA.
One of the vital lessons learned from the attempted bombings in Yemen was that 100 percent physical screening of all boxes does not necessarily equate to 100 percent aviation security. Employing shipment logic, including knowing who is shipping the box, where it’s going and what it contains, also should be a key indicator in the screening process. This information may, from time to time, produce red flags calling for more scrutiny of those shipments.
In response, the Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the TSA and Customs and Border Protection, has begun to review shipment data before departure from foreign airports on U.S.-bound flights. This new initiative, otherwise known as the Air Cargo Advanced Screening project, is now in its pilot phase with three distinct components. These include reviewing data submission challenges for express carriers, airlines and forwarders and all-cargo carriers. Early results indicate Customs has been able to scan shipment data successfully with minimal delays.
The industry’s primary concern is to fulfill advanced data submission requirements without prolonging shipment tender times and origin airports. In addition, the forwarders believe data analysis should be performed in a swift manner so that shipments secured to pallets or inserted in containers don’t have to be removed for inspection after buildup. Otherwise, a consignment requiring further review could cause others in the consolidation to miss the chosen flight.
While the advanced mining of data has come to play an important part in the screening process, we know its future role will probably not be a replacement for 100 percent physical screening. Instead, data analysis will steer the degree of existing screening requirements. The air cargo industry hopes this tool will become an important indicator dictating the actual level of physical screening that needs to occur before the shipment is actually loaded on a passenger flight.
In addition to air cargo security, many parts of the industry are working together on additional issues affecting the air freight industry. The Airforwarders Association recently joined forces with the Transportation Intermediaries Association for a Washington policy forum. The event brought together transportation professionals from different sectors to advocate for issues of critical importance to the transportation industry as a whole. In this case, participants advocated for an extension to the highway bill as well as other urgent issues including air cargo security.
Throughout the two-day event, more than 50 face-to-face meetings were held with congressional staff, officials from Customs and Border Protection, the TSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration as well as senior members of the House of Representatives. The group’s primary concern was ensuring adequate and long-term funding of highway infrastructure improvements throughout the country. Air freight professionals realize shipments need good roads and adequate airport access to meet planes to get packages delivered. We need a long-term, well-funded legislative solution for this growing issue of concern.
The ongoing challenge of curbing carbon emissions remains a matter of primary concern for all countries. The industry needs a combined, thoughtful approach where all nations convene to draft sensible policies focused on improving air quality. We oppose the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme. The plan calls for requiring airlines to purchase carbon credits for flights accessing European airspace. This would increase passenger and freight costs with dubious benefits. We urge the EU to reconsider its proposal, opting instead for a more cooperative approach where all nations gather using the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization as a venue to create a more globalized emissions policy.
Finally, the air cargo industry anxiously awaits a more definitive indication that the world’s economy is improving.
Despite encouraging activity in 2010, last year was relatively disappointing as air cargo volumes sank along with most of the world’s economies. This resulted in less-than-expected shipments from the United States to Europe and from China to the United States. Early indications predict 2012 will be a year of recovery and change. Because wages and cost of manufacturing goods in China are increasing, many predict demand and production will shift to the western provinces and even to other countries in the region, such as Vietnam.
New free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama also will create opportunities affecting air cargo volume in 2012. While the immediate effect of these new pacts is uncertain, most agree that ocean and air shipments are bound to increase as a result.
In addition, as costs in China increase, many forwarders are beginning to see customers shift manufacturing to Mexico and Latin America, bringing sourcing closer to the U.S. as a result.
Regardless of where the business originates, forwarders remain vigilant, constantly looking for new opportunities and ways to satisfy customers. Many realize that in order to be successful, they must offer all modes of transportation along with other services including storage, packing, and complex logistical planning.
As always, the key to our future is not just moving the box but thinking outside of it as well.
Brandon Fried is executive director of the Airforwarders Association in Washington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.