U.S. Customs and Border Protection is expected to release this month a draft strategic plan for taking its Air Cargo Advanced Screening system from a limited pilot program to a mandatory requirement that carriers pre-file information on all air shipments bound for the United States, according to industry representatives and government officials involved in the project.
Publication of the program blueprint comes as the security program prepares to enter its second phase, with several passenger carriers and freight forwarders joining express carriers in transmitting pre-departure cargo data to Customs for threat analysis.
CBP has received more than 12 million security transmissions through the ACAS pilot in the first year and fewer than 1 percent of them have required some follow-up intervention to resolve uncertainty, Dan Baldwin, CBP’s executive director of cargo and conveyance security, said at the quarterly meeting of the Commercial Operations Advisory Committee (COAC) on Feb. 21. A domestic passenger airline recently began transmitting test data on a limited basis and the first foreign carrier has begun doing so for all its departures around the globe, he said, without naming the airlines. The activity simply tests the ability of the carriers to transmit the necessary data in preparation for live operational screening.
A program summary prepared for the meeting shows the expanded pilot will involve American Airlines, Delta, Lufthansa, and British Airways, as well as forwarders Expeditors, DHL Global Forwarding, FedEx Trade Networks, BDP International, SEKO and Kuehne + Nagel.
ACAS was rushed out in a matter of weeks with the close cooperation of the air express industry following the failed October 2010 printer-bomb plot from Yemen as a way to analyze risk before shipments are loaded on a plane at a foreign airport. Under rules at the time that still apply today, air carriers must electronically file their cargo manifest four hours prior to arrival in the United States, or at lift-off for nearby airports in the hemisphere, so that CBP can run the data through its Automated Targeting System, which looks for red flags. Any necessary inspections are conducted upon arrival. The system leaves planes vulnerable to attack because potential threats can only be discovered while they are in flight.
ACAS Required Data Elements
In response, UPS and FedEx, soon followed by DHL Express and TNT, began scraping off the manifest seven data elements they collect up front from their customers and sending it as early as possible to CBP for pre-departure screening. The rest of the manifest information related to the flight is not considered critical from a risk management perspective and can be received later. CBP is accepting the data transmissions in various types of industry formats and mapping it to its database rather than requiring companies to adapt to a government-imposed message structure. Homeland security officials initially focused on express carriers because they account for more than 70 percent of all international air cargo shipments and control the entire transportation process, including directly collecting information from their customers.
Filers receive messages acknowledging receipt of the security filing, notifying them if a shipment is referred for more information or screening, and when the assessment is complete. Any suspicious shipments are inspected by the carrier following Transportation Security Administration screening protocols, before cargo is loaded on a plane. In the passenger aircraft pilot, some shipments could be stopped at the forwarder level. Local authorities may be involved, depending on the circumstances. One of the purposes of the trial program is to figure out the response protocols employed when analysts identify an anomaly.
ACAS initially covered 28 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and then expanded into Europe. It has now grown to 99 countries for express carriers, according to CBP.
The program is widely regarded within CBP and trade circles as a model for public-private collaboration because industry specialists were consulted at the outset to formulate, design and implement a system for securing the air cargo system in a way that meets business requirements, as opposed to having business groups comment on a program or regulation after it has already been internally conceived by the government.
The draft strategic plan was prepared in conjunction with the COAC and TSA, and will be posted on the CBP Website to get more input from the air cargo community, Barbara Vatier, chairman of COAC’s air cargo security subcommittee who until recently was managing director of cargo services for the Air Transport Association (now called Airlines for America), said at the meeting.
COAC recommendations that Customs use the advance data from the house airway bill to fulfill airlines’ Automated Manifest System filing requirement and allow foreign freight forwarders to also transmit the data, if they choose, are being adopted, Baldwin said.
CBP, for comparison, opened up AMS filing to non-vessel-operating common carriers in the maritime sector about nine years ago.
The house airway bill is the forwarder’s bill of service with the customer, one or more of which can be included on the master airway bill between the carrier and the forwarder. One of the positive elements of ACAS, from the trade community’s point of view, is that there is no requirement for the master airway bill number to be included in the transmission. The master bill is usually generated later in the process and waiting to include an identification number would slow down the screening process.
Industry officials have made it clear they don’t want CBP to require the same data to be submitted by different entities in the supply chain. That means if a forwarder transmits the cargo description and shipper information to Customs airlines should not have to resubmit the same data to satisfy AMS. The international freight community’s message to government for any trade-related program going forward is: take the data once and use it for multiple purposes.
Baldwin said the data and lessons from the pilot program will guide new air cargo security rules because CBP doesn’t want to prejudge how a regulatory framework should work, especially since the agency intends to tailor the rules to specific industry sectors rather than employing a one-size-fits-all approach.
CBP and TSA officials encouraged companies to participate in the pilot to make sure a good cross-section of the industry is represented and help them better understand the dynamics between various types of shippers, commodities, logistics firms and carriers. The strategic plan will be updated periodically as the agency and its partners gain more experience with a pre-departure screening regime, they said.
“CBP is really focused now on socializing freight forwarders into the pilot” because it doesn’t understand the indirect air carrier industry the way it does forwarders (NVOs) on the ocean side, Vatier told American Shipper.
Vatier, who now consults on aviation security under the name BV Solutions LLC, said during the meeting that CBP is learning a lot from ACAS about a segment of the supply chain that it had never before regulated.
Participation in the demonstration program will improve as transportation providers realize the potential benefits, such as helping them complete the AMS filing and reducing the amount of redundant data required, COAC member Michael Ford, vice president of regulatory compliance and quality for BDP, said.
Trade specialists also say that by providing more reliable data earlier in the process, and then being able to update it as better information becomes available, they can reduce the number of inspections and improve customs clearance times upon arrival. Forwarders that directly file information may be able to reduce airline fees for electronic document filing and gain greater insight about the status of their cargo. The ability to update manifests with fresh information also helps reduce fines faced by carriers for inaccurate or incomplete manifest information, Chris Kennally, CBP’s director of cargo control, said in the agency’s quarterly Frontline magazine.
COAC encouraged Customs and TSA to use video, printed material, speaking engagements and other communication methods to spread the word about ACAS, especially to foreign freight forwarders and carriers.
Meanwhile, air carriers and their customers must also deal with TSA requirements that 100 percent of air cargo on passenger planes be screened. The TSA has a domestic component of the program that certifies shippers and forwarders who want to check their own cargo, using physical search or non-intrusive technology, prior to arrival at the airport. Otherwise, the responsibility for inspections falls on airlines. But the TSA has had difficulty applying the rules to international flights because of jurisdictional barriers overseas and its lack of authority to regulate non-carriers. Since 2009, the TSA has ramped up the requirements for international airlines to screen inbound cargo.
ACAS proved beneficial after the Yemen incident as a stopgap security measure to protect all-cargo aircraft, but reviewing shipment information isn’t a substitute for inspection on the passenger side. However, last month the TSA proposed changes to its security directives for domestic and foreign passenger airlines that would allow carriers to incorporate some of the risk-based screening in ACAS in their security plans.
Security directives and emergency amendments are the non-public regulations under which carriers and indirect air carriers operate. They are usually issued on a temporary, or ad hoc, basis to address a concern, until a regulation can be issued. The proposed changes essentially endorse pre-departure risk assessment as part of the carrier’s standard security programs.
For the all-cargo sector, ACAS helps by using an automated rule set to identify high-risk cargo to screen. ACAS potentially benefits passenger airlines by providing a tiered approach for the amount of scrutiny applied to shipments, depending on their risk rating, Vatier said in an interview. That means a known shipper repeatedly transporting the same merchandise on the same route may be subject to less intrusive inspection methods than an unknown, or high-risk, company. Trusted cargo, for example, might only need to go through one type of detection process, such as x-ray imaging, while a shipment about which there is little, or derogatory information, may also need to go through explosive trace detection or have cartons physically opened, or both.
Figuring out how to incorporate trusted shipper concepts into the 100 percent screening requirement is another reason why it is important for international freight companies to participate in the ACAS pilot, Kim Costner Moore, TSA’s assistant general manager for air cargo security, told COAC.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has a bill pending on Capitol Hill that would essentially codify ACAS to make sure CBP screens advance data prior to departure at origin.
ACAS also offers TSA a way to reach consensus on an international standard that is compatible with its inspect-all regime. The TSA has strict standards on the type of screening that must be used for air cargo on passenger planes, including that inspections be done at the piece level. Other countries have different screening standards that often don’t meet TSA’s criteria. The TSA’s Cargo Security Office is closely studying security programs in other countries with the goal of reaching bilateral agreements on shared security methods.
A forwarder that is a regulated agent of a carrier in a country with a certified cargo screening program may screen cargo prior to tendering it to a passenger carrier, similar to how many logistics providers do in the United States. The TSA is also requiring confirmation by the carrier through the AMS system that the screening has been completed, Scott Sangster, vice president of global logistics network for Descartes Systems Group, said during a March 1 webinar held by the Airforwarders Association.
Descartes specializes in standardizing multi-party supply chain data exchanges and plans to offer a portal for forwarders to file house airway bills to Customs prior to departure. One of the issues that forwarders need to improve on if they participate in ACAS is supplying the shipment record to the carrier well ahead of loading, Sangster said.
Under the existing regime, it’s possible for cargo from some parts of the world to be screened multiple times, Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, said in an interview. A shipment from an African nation, for example, may go through some security review at origin before being shipped to a hub in Germany for transshipment to the United States. The package may go through some screening to meet German import or export requirements and then may have to be re-screened again to meet U.S. requirements if there’s some variation in the screening methods used. Some analysts argue that cargo from a high-threat market should automatically undergo a second layer of scrutiny at transshipment hubs if it is transferred to another airline.
Fried said he has been told by TSA officials that the agency has national security agreements with three unidentified countries now and that 20 more are in the pipeline. The names of the countries are classified.
The International Civil Aviation Organization is trying to create international consensus on screening standards for low-risk cargo, which would allow the vast majority of cargo to quickly move through the system and retain the ability countries to demand higher levels of scrutiny for high-risk shipments.
ACAS can help in that endeavor, according to Vatier, by allowing a range of screening options based on the intelligence associated with each shipment. — Eric Kulisch