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Air CargoAmerican ShipperNewsTop Stories

Air cargo goes crazy for K-9 security

Shortage of bomb-detection dogs for screening outbound shipments on freighter aircraft expected this summer

Demand is high for dogs in the air logistics sector, and it’s not because they make nice companions during the self-isolation of coronavirus.

In just four months, new international security standards go into effect requiring countries to implement programs for 100% screening of every shipment on all-cargo aircraft. It’s a huge undertaking for the private sector, which is still waiting for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to issue rules detailing how to achieve that goal.

Many airlines and freight service providers are opting for trained canines to check for explosives, because they often are more cost-effective and cheaper than imaging technology or other methods.

(Source: Global K9 Protection Group)

The bomb detector dogs are also the quickest way to comply for exporters and transport providers that were slow to prepare because of the pandemic or procrastination, industry officials and security experts say. And uncertainty over whether the TSA will exempt e-commerce retailers, and other large businesses, from checking each shipment if their facilities provide equivalent security has further increased interest in canine teams.

“There’s going to be a tremendous surge in the demand for canines, and indirect air carriers and all-cargo carriers are probably going to be scrambling to get canines in place by June 30,” said Doug Brittin, a former head of TSA’s air cargo division who developed programs for screening air cargo on passenger planes. 

“You can’t just throw on a canine team in 30 days. You’ve got to find the dogs, you’ve got to train them and go through the certification process. It could easily take 60 to 90 days on the short side to get teams in place,” he said.

Bomb sniffers

Using sniffer dogs in the air cargo environment isn’t new.

The Third-Party Canine Cargo Program (3PK9), established by the TSA in late 2018 to help relieve the burden on airlines, freight forwarders and shippers screening cargo on passenger aircraft, has been a big success, by all accounts. Until then, the only options were X-ray machines, explosive trace detection and physical search at the item level. Congress mandated in 2010 that all cargo be checked for explosives prior to loading on passenger aircraft, with the primary responsibility falling on airlines. A subsequent TSA program gave certified freight forwarders, cargo owners and security companies the ability to inspect cargo upstream and prevent backlogs at space-constrained airport warehouses.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) allows member states two other methods for meeting the new air cargo security standards as long as they provide a commensurate level of protection as 100% screening: Let companies in the supply chain get the government’s seal of approval for having secure facilities so their shipments can be cleared to fly or create an alternative program. 

So far, the TSA has provided limited information about how it will implement a scan-all mandate for outbound cargo on pure freighter aircraft. But with the July 1 deadline approaching, many industry players see canines as the best solution.

“There’s going to be a dramatic increase in the use of third-party canines,” John Beckius, executive director of the TSA’s air cargo division, said in an interview with FreightWaves. 

The program for passenger cargo currently operates at about 25 domestic airports but is poised for significant expansion, he added.

Beckius and air cargo executives say K-9 security companies have assured them they have enough resources to meet demand, but others are more nervous.

“Frankly, we’re a little worried about that,” said Michael Mullen, executive director of the Express Association of America, which represents DHL, FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) and UPS (NYSE: UPS).

He urged ICAO to extend the deadline for a year, noting that the COVID crisis “has slowed down the training programs for canine teams” and made planning more difficult for companies across the board.

The K-9 security industry can ultimately meet air cargo screening demand, but there will be short-term shortages, warned Eric Hare, chief executive and president of Global K9 Protection Group in Opelika, Alabama.

The company expects to have 220 canine teams in place by midyear — about double the number since late 2020 — as it rapidly adds clients. About 20 teams, consisting of a handler and a dog, are graduating each month from GK9PG’s eight-week training program.

“By the end of March you need to have your pipeline full to meet the needs of 1 July. The problem is going to be the timing,” Hare said.

New York-based MSA Security plans to increase the number of K-9 teams for air cargo by more than 50% in the first quarter. Some teams that previously worked for all-cargo carriers that screen as a matter of policy to protect their brand, or simplify processes if they are part of a larger passenger airline, now must get certified to continue under the TSA program, said Marc Murphy, the firm’s director of air cargo.

MSA has not had difficulty getting dogs from trusted vendors, a situation he attributed to the company’s longevity and strong relationships.

Dog vs. machine

Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW), which operates the largest fleet of Boeing 747 freighters in the world and is a contract carrier for Amazon’s private airline, has opted to go with K-9 screening, Gary Wade, vice president of global security, said. 

The long, narrow and flat warehouses typically found at airports aren’t well suited for X-ray machines because dragging pallets across multiple dock doors to reach the equipment would severely hinder throughput. And cargo deliveries tend to rush in right before the flight cutoff window, making it difficult to put all the shipments through a scanner, Wade told FreightWaves.

Other challenges include screening systems being unable to fit large pallets or curved containers, employee training, equipment testing, and intensive record-keeping, he added.

And many types of cargo, such as frozen fish or pharmaceuticals, can’t be easily recognized by scanning technology.

Wade said a couple K-9 companies are conducting tests at Atlas facilities to understand their configuration, traffic volume and other considerations that will determine how many K-9 teams are needed to keep freight moving.

“We’ve been assured there’s no supply problem. That’s something we looked at because of COVID they can’t do as much training,” Wade said. “But you never know what the upstream requirements are going to be.”

Delays are also possible because the TSA has released little information about K-9 requirements for screening freighter-bound cargo, according to industry stakeholders.

The agency has yet to start the formal rulemaking process — which typically takes the better part of a year or more — or update the existing guidelines for canine providers and freight forwarders that currently provide security for passenger cargo.

Brittin, who retired as head of The International Air Cargo Association four years ago, said the TSA needs to amend the existing program so K-9 providers know what is expected in the all-cargo environment, especially as it relates to nose-distance from the target, so the industry can properly prepare.

Air containers used by all-cargo carriers on the main deck go well beyond the height configuration in the current security program for passenger aircraft, which can only take cargo in the smaller belly hold. 

“There hasn’t been a lot of guidance from TSA about what will be allowed for regulated entities on the shipper side,” MSA’s Murphy said. “The air cargo carrier models are distinctly different from what we’re currently doing. We can only screen to certain heights, currently. There needs to be some flexibility [and more work] to assist the entire industry make this mandate.”

MSA is working with clients to test best methods for screening and submit them to TSA for consideration “because we’re running out of time,” Murphy said.

“There are certain screening regulations that we have to meet when we go through our screening protocols,” but size and configuration requirements that cover the full range of industry operating conditions are urgently needed, he added. 

Express delivery companies, for example, have their own aircraft and process cargo much differently than freight intermediaries. 

Helping introduce canines as the primary source of screening is critical, “because that’s the only way these companies are going to be able to make it” by the deadline, Murphy said.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

RELATED NEWS:

TSA to reveal security plan for air cargo industry

TSA 100% screening option could be cheaper for shippers

TSA to propose scan-all alternative for air cargo security

TSA seeks enhanced screening capabilities for air cargo

New air cargo security standards could gum up e-commerce exports

Eric Kulisch, Air Cargo Editor

Eric is the Air Cargo Market Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at ekulisch@freightwaves.com