Terror, Again

Copyright 2006, Traffic World, Inc.

The airline industry furor following the announcement in London that a horrific terror plot had been foiled wasn''t directly about freight transportation but the logistics world should pay close attention because it will very likely have an impact on the movement of goods.

And that impact won''t be strictly limited to air shipping as the concerns, questions and responses in one arena gradually reverberate across supply chains and transportation modes.

In the case of the London terror plot, the move from news about confiscated hair gel at passenger security checkpoints to new questions about the screening of air cargo wasn''t at all gradual. The complaints that most freight shipments placed in the belly holds of passenger aircraft are not physically screened came quickly and forcefully. Moreover, we sense a growing recognition in conversations with transport industry officials that the way air cargo is handled and screened will have to change.

Such changes will start with the airline business, where the industrial logistics world crosses with the passenger travel industry. But shippers and operators in other modes will have to pay attention as the practices and technology that come into use in airline operations are pressed into larger use.

The good news for shippers and air operators is that there is rapid progress on the technology to screen freight shipments and the speed and efficiency so important to carriers is a prominent part of the research.

What may be the most promising effort will begin in October at San Francisco International Airport, where the Department of Homeland Security will begin a pilot program to screen cargo for explosives in a project directed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory working with experts in other federal research groups.

The $30 million Air Cargo Explosives Detection Pilot Program will take place at SFO, the 13th largest cargo airport in North America last year with 584,926 metric tons of cargo, and two unnamed airports will be added later.

It''s called a program and not a test because the researchers will focus on existing technology rather than equipment that is in development and they will look at how the existing devices, most of them used in baggage inspections, can be applied to cargo operations.

Researchers also will "seek a better understanding of the economic impact of these changes on the air carriers and how they do business," the Livermore laboratory said in announcing the program. "The pilot program will focus on developing concepts of operations for screening air cargo. Those concepts will be evaluated and checked to see whether they can be improved for use at other airports."

The attention to "concepts" probably won''t stem a rising tide of criticism of cargo screening. But it''s especially important in freight transportation because the methods used in baggage screening simply cannot be moved to the freight business. Screeners of industrial shipments aren''t simply looking for the outlines of guns and knives.

What screeners are looking for is a sense of real security. When they find that in London or San Francisco, carriers and shippers will feel much more secure.

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