Setback for Markey

Setback for Markey

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

Cargo carriers won a battle earlier this month when a congressional conference committee stripped a provision from a spending bill that would have required all cargo transported on passenger planes to undergo an inspection.

The measure''s supporters and cargo pilots lamented the action, saying it jeopardizes the safety of airline passengers. Its opponents said requiring 100 percent inspection is not a practical or useful solution.

"Safety cannot take a back seat to the shippers'' convenience of not screening cargo," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said. Markey had successfully led the way to including the inspection measure in the House version of the homeland security spending bill for the 2004 fiscal year. He vowed to try again to include the inspection requirement when the $29.4 billion bill returns to the House floor for final approval. At press time, Congress was expected to approve the bill the week of Sept. 22 and send it to the White House for President Bush''s signature.

The administration has opposed the cargo inspection measure. The bill also includes $60 million for further development of technology that would help commercial planes evade surface-to-air missiles.

Most carriers, freight forwarders and shippers in the air cargo industry argue that they are solidly for improving safety but that 100 percent inspection of cargo shipped aboard passenger planes is not the most practical way to reach that goal.

Supporters of such inspections capitalized on the case in early September of 25-year-old Charles McKinley, who successfully shipped himself inside an air cargo crate from New York to Dallas. On top of that, a UPS plane made an emergency landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport the night of Sept. 17 after a caller told company officials a bomb was inside one of the packages the plane was carrying. The plane and its contents underwent law enforcement inspection at the airport and no bomb was found.

"What can Brown do for you?" Markey asked, latching on to UPS''s advertising slogan. "Evidently, they can ship you or a bomb across the country in a box that goes uninspected."

UPS spokesman David Bolger criticized Markey for lumping recent air cargo incidents together. "I think he is extending these disparate scenarios or disparate incidents that involved aircraft and violations to what he is considering to be the gaping hole in the nation''s security system," Bolger said. "With all deference to Rep. Markey, he seems to be extending isolated incidents to the industry as a whole."

UPS opposes Markey''s legislation and has met with members of congressional homeland security and transportation committees to educate them in private about the inner workings of the company''s security measures.

"We feel that once (Markey) has a greater understanding of what we have in place, measures that are effective and our ongoing analysis of threats to the system, he will have a greater appreciation for the current security environment in the aviation community," Bolger said.

Richie Phillips, chairman, president and chief executive of Pilot Air Freight, the forwarder that handled the McKinley shipment, said even if a cargo inspection had been required, the stowaway most likely would not have been discovered. "If Charles was run through a scanner, he would have gone through unnoticed because the scanners pick up firearms and explosive devices," Phillips said.

Phillips said he supports development of new technology to improve cargo security but accused Markey of fear mongering. "He grabs a lot of headlines," Phillips said.

Phillips said running every shipment through a scanner is not a practical solution for the industry. "But there''s a need for new technology, and we should calmly and deliberately go about developing new technology and not carry our headline crusade."

The congressional conference committee did pass a watered-down version of the cargo inspection provision, requiring that cargo on passenger planes be inspected "at the earliest date possible." The votes split along party lines with Republicans opposing the stricter inspection requirements and Democrats supporting it.

Congressional supporters and airline pilots say the language that passed is not good enough. "When you can ship yourself in a box from New York to Texas ... that tells you that something has to be done," said UPS pilot Robert Miller, president of the Independent Pilots Association. Miller''s union is a member of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations that supports screening cargo traveling on all-cargo planes as well as cargo that flies in passenger plane bellies.

Miller, a Boeing 767 pilot based in Louisville, Ky., said despite the cost of inspecting cargo, it is an important enough national priority that a way should be found to shoulder the costs. "Do we want security or don''t we?" he asked. "We can''t just pay it lip service."

Markey also supports mandating screening all air cargo but he said it would be politically impossible to achieve that change now. "Tactically, I decided if we could not succeed in screening the cargo which goes on passenger planes, then we had no chance to screen cargo on cargo planes," he said.