Air cargo inspection bill: grounded

Air cargo inspection bill: grounded

When the House of Representatives passed a bill on June 24 to require inspection of all cargo moving on passenger planes, the air-cargo industry was worried. Dave Brooks, president of the cargo division at American Airlines, called the bill "the most ludicrous piece of legislation that's come across the bow in a long time."

Industry officials are breathing easier now that it appears the Senate won't go along with the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., decided not to introduce an amendment to the appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security that would require physical screening of all cargo flown on passenger planes.

Though users and providers of airfreight services don't dispute the need to secure air cargo against terrorists, they say a law requiring inspection of all cargo on passenger flights would kill that segment of the industry, hurt forwarders and throw shippers' supply chains into turmoil.

Many shippers rely on the belly capacity of passenger planes to move their freight. Passenger planes handle 30 percent of all cargo flown by U.S.-flag carriers, according to the Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines and freight carriers such as FedEx and UPS Airlines. There aren't enough freighters to pick up the slack. Switching to truck or rail for domestic shipments, or to ocean carriers for intercontinental moves, would add days or weeks to shippers' supply chains.

The industry is taking a twofold approach to air-cargo security. It's working with the Transportation Security Administration to tighten the system through a so-called layered approach, which includes using the known-shipper program and other databases, as well as random screening of cargo. The known-shipper program, designed to ensure that carriers and forwarders know who is shipping cargo, was one of the first cargo initiatives to follow the Sept. 11 attacks.

Instead of the Markey bill to require inspection of all cargo on passenger planes, industry executives have embraced a bill co-sponsored by Feinstein and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. This would tighten the known-shipper program, require inspections of cargo facilities, and require a better system for tracking cargo. The bill, called the Air Cargo Security Act, unanimously passed the Senate last fall and again on May 8 of this year.

No companion legislation has yet been introduced in the House, where the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a bill on June 25 authorizing funding for the TSA to study security provisions and develop a program it considers feasible. "We decided it would be best to let the TSA look at potential programs and then come back to Congress and tell us what they need," a committee spokesman said. "They're the aviation security professionals."

Because of its initial concentration on screening passengers and baggage, the TSA was slow to focus on air cargo. But that has changed in recent months. Three industry-government working groups have been addressing different aspects of air-cargo security since April. The first is focusing on ways to improve existing procedures for screening air cargo, specifically the known-shipper program, by linking it with other databases, such as those used by the FBI, Customs and the Department of Agriculture, as well as private services, such as Dun & Bradstreet, to look for possible security risks.

"That can be done pretty quickly. The system is designed to be interactive," said Jack Boisen, vice president of cargo at Continental Airlines and chairman of the Air Transport Association's Cargo Council. This working group is also studying other ways to screen cargo, including canine teams and random inspection of a certain percentage of cargo, either manually or with X-ray equipment.

A second working group is targeting "indirect air carriers," the government's term for freight forwarders. "We're looking at how we can ensure that the facilities and employees of freight forwarders are working in a secure manner," a TSA spokesperson said. The group is also focusing on certification procedures for forwarders.

The third working group is focusing on all-cargo aircraft. "We're looking at how to prevent unauthorized access to the plane," the TSA official said. This includes background checks for people flying in freighter aircraft, as well as those who have access to the ramp.

The three working groups, under the coordination of Elaine Dezenski, are expected to issue their reports in September.