Cargo Checks Rejected

Cargo Checks Rejected

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

The lines at air cargo security checkpoints may not be as long as feared, at least not yet.

A House panel by three votes last week rejected legislation that would have required at least 60 percent of all domestic cargo moving in the bellies of passenger planes to be physically inspected.

Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, sponsored the amendment, the latest attempt by proponents of tougher screening to push cargo checks beyond those already mandated.

Shippers took a strong stand against the amendment.

"We are concerned with any proposal that would require 100 percent screening and/or inspections of air freight," National Industrial Transportation League Executive Vice President Peter Gatti wrote in a letter to the House Appropriations Committee the day before they voted on the spending bill. "Many of our members are dependent on air transport since their cargo shares several common characteristics. Much of it is time-sensitive, of high value and delicate in nature."

Gatti said high-tech goods, pharmaceuticals and perishables could be compromised by inspections.

"Physical inspection of such freight risks contamination, which in many cases will result in irreparably unusable, and valueless products," he wrote, noting that much air cargo is shrink-wrapped and therefore could be difficult to physically inspect. "While proposals to inspect and screen each piece of cargo are well intentioned, it would directly translate into significant delays, and result in costing consumers millions of dollars annually."

Airforwarders Association Executive Director David Wirsing said another legislative attempt could be just around the corner and said cargo interests still are looking for ways to improve security.

"Obviously we''re relieved," he said. "We''ve never believed that 100 percent inspection would do anything more than the systems we currently have in place."

The industry fears a requirement for physical inspection would drive shippers either to truckers if air cargo loses its time advantage or to the express carriers who operate freighters and wouldn''t be subject to the same rules. "It certainly would curtail commerce in terms of air freight forwarding and the airlines," Wirsing said. "It might even create more bankruptcies."

Wirsing and many others in the air cargo industry prefer to have air cargo security rules set out through the federal agency rulemaking process rather than through Congress.

The Transportation Security Administration, which had said new rules might take the rest of the year to write, now expects to issue the draft rules by "late summer," a TSA spokesman said.

Sabo and others gave no hint that air cargo security has lost its urgency.

"Cargo carried on passenger aircraft is still not inspected like the passenger baggage carried in the same hold," Sabo said when the House Appropriations Committee met to approve the $31.9 billion homeland security spending bill. "While the chairman has sought to improve on the president''s request, I don''t believe the subcommittee bill goes far enough to close this security gap."

So far, the air cargo industry has successfully lobbied against such inspections, saying the technology doesn''t yet exist to inspect a large volume of air cargo and that such inspections would impede expedited commerce.

The House version of the homeland security spending bill, which the full House was expected to pass last week, would allocate $118.4 million for air cargo security programs. It also would require the TSA to double the number of air cargo inspections it conducts. The bill also contains $61 million for research and development of anti-missile technology for commercial planes.

The bill would provide a $2.8 billion spending increase, or 9.8 percent, over the fiscal year 2004 funding levels. Still, the bill is $308.5 million less than what President Bush requested in his budget blueprint for next year.