''Trippers'' and Shippers

''Trippers'' and Shippers

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

To Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., the logic is simple and the issue is clear: all cargo shipped on passenger planes should be inspected or screened.

"The people I talk to can''t believe we don''t screen cargo that goes on passenger planes," Markey said in a recent telephone interview. "When travelers get on a passenger plane they are thoroughly inspected from their head to their shoes. But when a commercial cargo company ships a box on the same plane, it is placed in a cargo hold under your well-screened shoes without any physical screening or inspection whatsoever."

A senior member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, Markey has been the most vigorous proponent in Congress of full screening for air cargo. In June he co-sponsored an amendment with Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., to the homeland security appropriations bill that would have prohibited any funds from being used to implement any air cargo security plan that permitted the transporting of unscreened cargo on passenger planes. The House approved the amendment on June 24 by a vote of 278-146.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, R-Calif., did not introduce a similar measure in the Senate, which instead passed the Air Cargo Security Act. Rather than mandate universal screening of cargo, that measure would require more inspections of cargo facilities, greater shipping transparency and changes to the known-shipper program. The Senate approved Feinstein''s bill in May, but the House did not approve the Senate bill by the time the 107th Congress adjourned for its August recess. Israel Klein, a spokesman for Markey, said that House and Senate members are expected to come up with a reconciled bill in conference soon.

Air carriers have called Markey''s proposal extreme and logistically and financially impratical. They also question whether universal screening at the airport is necessary. "If a customer can be identified and a shipment can be controlled from the point of origin, what''s the need for screening at the airport?" an airline executive asked in June.

But Markey believes the known-shipper program - the cornerstone of air cargo security that requires carriers and forwarders to know who is shipping cargo - is little more than a joke. In two letters to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, he has referred to it as the "current excuse for allowing cargo to be carried on passenger planes without any physical screening" and a "faith-based" security system. He has talked to security experts from around the world about the program, he said - with the most compelling evidence coming from airport employees - and he says the verdict is clear: the program is fraught with weaknesses at dozens of points along the supply chain.

The irony, said Markey, is that all airline passengers are "known" to the airlines - part of what he calls a "known tripper" program - because they have to produce ID and tickets before boarding planes. Yet that doesn''t prevent their luggage and carry-on bags from being screened and inspected with a fine-tooth comb. It doesn''t make sense to exempt cargo from screening just because the shipper''s identity is known, when known trippers are subject to such intense scrutiny.

"Why should a known tripper have to go through more intensive scrutiny than a known shipper?" he said. "Known trippers can prove who they are but they still ask us to take off our shoes and put our computers, cell phones and luggage through a screening device. Meanwhile at the back of a plane a cargo shipper shows up with a piece of paper saying this is who I am and I want to put cargo on the plane, next to screened bags, but I don''t want to pay a nickel to make sure there is not an explosive device in the cargo."

In letters written to Ridge in June and August, Markey queried the secretary about the known-shipper program: what percentage of cargo from known shippers is classified as high-risk and how are such assessments made? He asked whether "unknown shippers" are redirected to freighters, if known shippers are verified as such by the DHS and how many have been involuntarily cut from the program. So far, said Markey spokesman Klein, Ridge has not responded.

Markey called it "stunning" that the DHS exposes passengers to "known and preventable risks" by allowing unscreened packages weighing 16 ounces or less onto passenger planes, since the known-shipper program only covers cargo weighing 16 ounces or more. The 16-ounce limit is "woefully inadequate," Markey told Ridge; if not, he asked, why was unscreened mail and cargo weighing more than 12 ounces - unless it was shipped in a bomb-resistant container - banned from passenger planes during the Gulf War and between Sept. 12 and 17, 2001? Saying such packages can be lethal, Markey cited the bomb that blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland and the one found in the shoes of would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, both of which were estimated to contain less than 16 ounces of explosives.

The oversight is egregious, according to Markey, because the 16-ounce packages can be screened as easily as carry-on luggage, and by the same machines. With passengers now carrying on bags that weigh 50 pounds or more, most cargo and luggage are the same for screening purposes.

"I can''t help but believe that that is the size of most cargo, and we can screen the bulk of it right now," he said. "It is not a technical issue, it is a cost issue. Both the cargo industry and the Bush administration do not want to spend the extra money to screen cargo, and that combination has made it impossible to give protection to families on commercial planes."

The air cargo industry and Markey are at odds over whether the technology currently exists to screen all air cargo. Markey said that the technology exists to screen all cargo, that it is at least as effective as baggage-screening technology and that it is ready to be deployed. He cited recent testimony before the Select Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Infrastructure and Border Security by Rick Stephens, vice president and general manager of homeland security and services for Boeing Co.

"All problems have been worked out with it and it is now a perfected technology," Markey said. "The technology is available, the equipment is tested and a pool of qualified screeners exists."

In his July 23 testimony before Markey''s committee, Stephens didn''t say that technology for screening all air cargo is ready to be deployed, but he suggested that it soon could be developed. Boeing''s skills in developing integrated advanced systems for defense, space and other customers, Stephens testified, "are directly applicable to solving large, complex problems the U.S. faces in its homeland security mission." He said Boeing, working with local, state, federal and industry stakeholders, helped airports meet the U.S. deadline to screen all checked baggage by Dec. 31, 2002, in only 207 days. Within that time frame, Stephens said, Boeing''s project team trained more than 25,000 baggage screeners, surveyed sites, developed final designs, modified facilities and installed more than 6,000 explosive-detection systems at 439 U.S. commercial airports.

Air cargo industry officials have ripped the Markey-Shays amendment as an unfunded mandate, but Markey said the money for screening likely would come from cargo fees and/or taxpayer revenues. Why, for safety''s sake, Markey wants to know, shouldn''t shippers pay 25 cents more per crustacean when shipping 50 pounds of lobster from Boston to restaurants in California? For that matter, why should inanimate objects shipped as cargo not get the same scrutiny as people?

"Each of us pays a small fee when we get on planes now and it is worth it," he said. "If humans have to pay it why should cargo be exempt?"

Some in the air cargo industry fear that Markey''s amendment is the first step towards a total ban on cargo in passenger planes. In his letters to Ridge, Markey seems to embrace the idea. Stating that Ridge had indicated that screening cargo was a "secondary requirement in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act," Markey wrote, "if cargo were not carried on aircraft the issue would lose much of its urgency.

Markey insists he does not want to ban cargo on passenger planes. "My objective is just to see all cargo screened," he said.