Threatening Air Cargo

Threatening Air Cargo

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

Warnings that terrorists may attack sites in the United States with freighters hijacked outside the country put new pressure on cargo airlines to toughen security and to justify whether current programs are enough to guard against new airborne terror.

The warnings, issued by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security Nov. 7, added impetus to efforts by pilots'' unions and legislators to overhaul existing security plans and require the screening of all cargo.

The government''s six-page "information circular" on al Qaeda fell short of more urgent warnings of direct and immediate threats that have been issued by DHS, but it put the cargo industry under a fresh spotlight, with a chilling reminder of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

It warns that al Qaeda has plans to hijack cargo planes in nearby countries and fly them into targets such as dams, nuclear power plants and bridges.

The low level of the alert suggested that there was no pressing new information on imminent terror threats, industry officials say. But it was enough to send cargo carrier executives, fearing dramatic new requirements and costs, scrambling to soothe lawmakers as calls. Some legislators renewed their demands for increased air cargo security.

"Cargo pilots know all too well that a building struck by a large, fully fueled cargo plane could result in physical and economic damage to the United States that would echo the horror of September 11," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Markey introduced legislation earlier this year that would have required universal screening of all cargo at or near airports. That effort failed but he is sticking to the issue and is strident in his opposition to the known-shipper program and in his demands for more action from DHS and its Transportation Security Administration.

"We have known since September 11 that al Qaeda continues to place commercial airliners at the very top of their terrorist target list. Yet the Department of Homeland Security will not act to close the gaping loopholes that still exist in our commercial airline security," he said.

The circular also adds fresh momentum to efforts by legislators and pilots'' unions to overhaul existing security plans by requiring screening of all cargo and building a program for freighter pilots to have guns.

But some air cargo officials said the warnings gave them no new information to work with and stressed that they already are doing as much as they can to improve security.

"What (the Nov. 7 warning) asked cargo airlines to do, we''re already doing," FedEx spokeswoman Kristin S. Krause said. "Our security has met or exceeded everything TSA asked for since the beginning of TSA."

Lufthansa Cargo security officer Harald Zielinski said the airline is always on the lookout for security threats to its operations but that hijacking is not top among potential threats. "As a security guy, I can imagine everything nasty," he said. "But I am not afraid from a Lufthansa Cargo perspective."

The Frankfurt, Germany-based airline has more than tripled its security spending since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Should a terrorist attack involve a cargo plane, Zielinski said the industry would pay the consequences. "The impact would be the same as it is for the passenger side: stricter security regulations and everything that could come in the interim," he said.

But any threat from hijacked freighters is unlikely to come from across oceans and the circular specifically warns of "nearby" countries. With Latin America crisscrossed by untold numbers of unsupervised airstrips and recent reports suggesting intelligence agencies are concerned that al Qaeda is organizing in Latin America, that region''s loose aviation environment could be a cause for concern.

Cargo Airline Association President Stephen A. Alterman criticized lawmakers for using the government''s missive as a reason to call for inspection of air cargo. "It tells me that there are a lot of people trying to make political capital out of a nonissue,"he said. "We take this very seriously. But the bottom line is, I''m not sure what news is out there."

Alterman, who had not seen the FBI and DHS memo, said it did not detail any new threats to cargo planes.

"This was general information," he said. "We have been aware that there is a danger of someone trying to hijack a cargo plane. It''s an inherent danger. I''m not sure what new information there is that would cause us to act any differently than we have for the foreseeable past."

"We need to continue to inform senators and members of a couple things," UPS spokesman David Bolger said. "What measures do we have in place, how are they benchmarking and what impact could they have on our operations, what impact additional layers of security could have on the facilitation of commerce."