Waiting for the All Clear

Waiting for the All Clear

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Heightened security around airline operations is heightening concern among cargo businesses about the direction of timely air service.

Airlines and forwarders redirected tons of belly-borne freight shipments over the holidays as flights, most of them across the Atlantic, were canceled, delayed and subjected to greater scrutiny amid raised warnings about potential terrorism.

With the United States still on a high level security alert after the holidays, cargo operators say they expect problems for the foreseeable future.

"We have been telling our customers that there are possible delays," said Yuichi Nakagawa, manager of corporate planning at Nippon Express USA, the American unit of the Japanese forwarding giant. "We are proposing that they proactively keep more inventory on hand so that they can withstand these increased delays.

"We don''t want to pretend that this is not going to affect our customers," he said.

Airforwarders Association Executive Director David Wirsing said forwarders are taking the possibility of delays and other restrictions into account.

"If it does continue, it will have a major impact on those carriers that are hub-focused, that use their hubs to reach far-reaching points," Wirsing said.

"I think we have an air cargo community that is more aware of these kinds of eventualities," he said. "I don''t know that that makes it right. I think we''ve become a lot more accepting of security measures."

The impact of raised security levels over the December holiday period was felt most directly at British Airways, Air France and Aeromexico. The airlines saw handfuls of flights canceled or delays after U.S. officials said intelligence showed certain flights to be at risk of terror attack.

The airlines re-routed freight shipments but said there would be greater disruptions if freighters were canceled.

"If you cancel a cargo plane, it''s a major concern," British Airways World Cargo Senior Vice President of the Americas Robert Kujala said. "It''s 110 tons of goods and services and that is always an issue. You are in the process of interrupting international commerce if that happens. We certainly hope it doesn''t."

With some Paris-Los Angeles flights canceled, Air France shifted U.S.-bound belly freight to San Francisco.

"As far as delays, the first effect was of course the West Coast because we had six cancellations," Air France Cargo spokeswoman Anne-Marie Rosaler said. "We were able to re-route some of the freight to San Francisco, so of course it results in delays for our customers."

The greater restrictions raised new possibilities that forwarders, faced with the uncertainty in belly trade, may shift more traffic to freighters to get around passenger-focused bottlenecks. But with cargo aircraft also under regulatory scrutiny that may not be much help and forwarders are leery of putting more pressure on airlines at a sensitive time.

"We are willing to do whatever we can to help the (Transportation Security Administration) and authorities to protect the homeland from any type of threat," said Nakagawa. "We don''t want to put any pressure whatsoever on the airlines that carry belly cargo in regards to security. We would like to support the airlines as much as we can. We have no intention of making changes in regards to our space buying."

"It''s almost you''ve got to do what you''ve got to do. But by the same token, we want to work extremely closely ... with the commercial carriers," Associated Global Systems Vice President of Strategic Planning Michael Hess said.

"It''s important for the airline industry itself, and it''s also important for the lift that we so desperately need as well."

One controversial measure that would extend to the freighters is the possible use of armed security marshals. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced Dec. 29 that the U.S. government would reserve the right to require armed security officials aboard international passenger or cargo flights entering the United States.

"I''m not sure what the air marshal would do on a cargo flight," said Cargo Airline Association President Stephen A. Alterman. "Inadequate security is simply bad business. So if there''s credible security information on a flight, we have to take that seriously. We don''t think weapons in the cockpit or on our planes is a good idea."

So far no cargo carriers have reported being asked to fly with an armed marshal onboard but major carriers across the Atlantic Ocean say they are ready to do so if necessary.

For now, shippers need not worry, Lufthansa Cargo spokesman Nils Haupt said. "At the moment, forwarders and shippers can rely on [a] 100 percent perfect schedule," he said.

Lufthansa formed a partnership with British Airways, Air France, Cargolux and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to work together to enhance European air security.

"We are prepared for having more security and we want to be the most secure cargo airline in the world," Haupt said.

Lufthansa is prepared to put air marshals aboard its freighters if the U.S. government requires it to.

"We do not see at the moment [an] actual threat, so at the moment we see no reason why the U.S. government or the TSA should cancel flights of Lufthansa Cargo," Haupt said. "We are prepared to have sky marshals on board. And of course we have special security measures and have security measures everywhere in the world."

Lufthansa physically screens all cargo from unknown shippers, even cargo bound for freighters rather than passenger plane bellies. The airline feels it is worth spending the extra money and effort to enhance security before their own government or the U.S. government mandates such changes.

IATA''s director of U.S. regulatory relations David O''Connor said it is important to put the delays and cancellations into perspective.

"It''s not a positive thing but it''s not nearly as bad on the cargo side as it is for passengers," he said. "Cargo doesn''t complain if it has to sit for a few hours or even a day."

O''Connor said security constantly will be a balancing act between being prudent and going overboard.

"We''re waiting for security to go away so we can return to our regular business," O''Connor said. "But it would be terrible if we had another attack."