Insecure Shippers

Insecure Shippers

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Universal screening creates universal anxiety in the cargo industry. Whether ocean, air, trucks or rail, the last thing companies in the freight transport field want is government inspectors opening or X-raying every box.

That''s especially true in the air cargo business, which is built around the most rapid transport of goods that money will buy. From small forwarders to the global express companies, there is heightened fear that heightened security in whatever form will endanger their business.

That was certainly the message this month at the Cargo Network Services annual "Partnership Conference" where cargo operators across the board decried the potential impact that tougher security would have on their businesses. The outcry was so loud that it was easy to overlook the one voice that was missing - that of shippers.

This was hardly something specific to the CNS meeting, the most serious gathering of the air cargo industry in North America. No, the voice of shippers has been notably absent from a debate over air cargo security that at times has flared into the national spotlight.

It''s not as if shippers don''t care about security, both in its overall importance for the national good and for its impact on the costs and efficiency of shipping. Shippers, after all, helped raise the profile of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program. Their early buy-in elevated the role of Customs in security oversight and made C-TPAT an anchor of the United States anti-terrorism efforts for international cargo.

By contrast, security specific to the air cargo industry is still developing, some say too slowly.

At a recent forum in Tampa, Fla., Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security, said the government is still evaluating how to strengthen inspections of cargo shipments aboard commercial airlines.

"We have mandated the physical inspection of a certain percentage of cargo that goes on (commercial aircraft) and there is an ongoing review of how to strengthen that even more,'''' he said in a speech there.

The air cargo industry has taken strong steps to harden its defenses against terrorism. But the fact is, the known shipper program - the heart of air cargo security for many years - is really little more than a single, thin line of defense. You''ve read about the arrests in the Madrid bombing that included the operator of a cellular telephone shop? That was a known shipper.

But the known shipper program is far more than the meaningless program that advocates of universal screening claim. It is one layer in many lines of defense and, more importantly, it can be used to create a stream of rich data that can be used to assess risk and detect meaningful patterns of shipping for intelligence use.

But air express carriers say that if they are required to screen the many millions of shipments they handle each day, their business will be crippled. And the commercial passenger airlines say any requirements that single out their operations would unfairly tilt business toward the freight operators.

But when airlines complain that efforts such as universal X-ray screening would be unworkable and likely damage their business, they are making the case without shippers in tow and that is significant.

Without the voices of shippers involved, the debate within the air cargo industry is largely an insular argument between competing parties.

Shippers should care because many mandates for universal inspection being thrown around Capitol Hill are profoundly ill-informed and so will add needless cost while potentially harming security. Airlines are making that point to Congress but they should also be making the point to their customers.