Air cargo industry clears screening hurdle
Early indications are the airline industry and its shipping customers have adapted well to the U.S. government's new mandate to screen all cargo on passenger planes against potential terrorist bombs.
There have been few, if any, noticeable operational complications at airports since the rule took effect 10 days ago.
'By and large we're hearing that things are going very smoothly, with some minor hiccups. Nothing major,' said Douglas Brittin, general manager of air cargo for the Transportation Security Administration. 'We've been in close communication with all the major widebody carriers. They've all indicated that operations are moving very smoothly. People are adhering to the earlier cutoff times for unscreened cargo, so that eliminated potential delays.'
Ground-handling agents that manage outsourced cargo loading for multiple airlines also report normal shipment flow, he added.
'So far, so good,' said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, who has been taking the pulse of his members.
Government and industry officials attribute the lack of problems to the fact that they had three years to prepare for the Aug. 1 deadline, as TSA phased in higher screening levels starting with all cargo on narrow-body planes and then ramping up to 50 percent, and then 75 percent of all cargo earlier this year.
TSA also created a program to certify shippers and forwarders to self-screen bulk shipments before delivery to the airlines so they could be loaded without being disassembled and examined at the point of uplift. As of Aug. 1, there were 962 Certified Cargo Screening Facilities across the country, including several dozen independent, dedicated screening facilities.
Many observers believed that large volumes of unscreened cargo would show up at airline cargo terminals and miss flights waiting to be screened. That has not materialized so far because the airlines have recently invested in large-scale X-ray machines that can screen some types of pallets and prepared their customers well for the new regulatory environment.
Carriers moved up cutoff times for delivery of unscreened cargo and communicated those requirements well in advance so shippers knew well when they had to get their trucks to the airport. Most airlines also established fast lanes for screened cargo. And CCSP facilities are contributing 45 percent to 50 percent of the screened volume, taking pressure off the airlines, Brittin said.
Parties throughout the supply chain can meet the mandate with X-ray and explosive trace detection machines, and manual inspections. TSA is providing some surge capacity and random checks with canine teams. Approved facilities must establish secure screening areas and security protocols to ensure no tampering takes place in house or during the handoff to ground transportation providers and train employees.
'We did not have delays of any sort. It went extremely well,' said Peter Sturtevant, vice president supply chain solutions and transportation for Covidien. The maker of medical devices and supplies ships products out of airports in Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles. The company is relying on its three primary freight forwarders to screen its shipments at their facilities, upstream from the airport, but is in the process of getting three distribution centers enrolled in the Certified Cargo Screening Program.
Sturtevant said the company expects its Joliet, Ill., facility to be approved by early October, followed by its Atlanta and Ontario, Calif., facilities. Covidien is taking a graduated approach so that it understands TSA's requirements and can learn from the initial vetting process.
Two Covidien facilities that produce pharmaceuticals are also scheduled to go through the security certification process, he added.
Brittin said there are several hundred shipper and forwarder applications in the pipeline. TSA is waiting for those companies to make the necessary security preparations before conducting an onsite assessment. As time goes on, more companies are expected to apply even if there aren't delays in the system as they realize that some cargo is opened by logistics providers or airlines and doesn't reach the customer in the same way it was packed.
Pfizer has not had any major problems shipping air freight on passenger planes since Aug. 1, reported Brad Elrod, director of global conveyance security and global logistics risk management for Pfizer. The drug maker has 13 approved CCSP facilities, with five more applications in the pipeline and another four facilities being considered for the program.
'We did an awful lot of prep ahead of time, so it's been pretty smooth during the first week or so,' he said.
Operations are going well at Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and Lufthansa Cargo, spokespersons at all three companies said.
'Our elite customers are tendering freight 100 percent screened and we haven't seen any significant delay in getting unscreened freight processed. We expect this trend to continue,' Delta spokesman Anthony Black said.
Lufthansa Cargo implemented 100 percent screening on July 1, one month ahead of the official deadline.
TSA and industry officials caution that the real test for the new security program will come in September and October, which typically are much heavier shipping months than August.
'If we're going to see some cracks it'll be toward the end of September,' as the holiday shipping season swings into gear, Europeans have returned from summer vacation, and companies accelerate shipments at the end of their fiscal year, said Richard Fisher, president of Falcon Global Edge, a Boston-based freight forwarder with several facilities across the country. 'And by that point we'll have had almost two months to practice.'
Brittin said airlines have an 'ace card' because they can push back cutoff times even further if the volume increases faster than they can handle without delays — a situation most shippers hope to avoid.
Meanwhile, TSA is urging inbound international shippers not to get complacent because TSA will continue to ratchet up the screening requirements to meet the 100 percent requirement as other countries increase their outbound inspection capability. ' Eric Kulisch