Congress needs better security answers
Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and his counterpart at the Transportation Security Administration, John Pistole, were hard pressed at a Nov. 16 Senate hearing to explain why they couldn't immediately issue a directive moving back the deadline for air carriers to file their cargo manifests.
The discussion came on the heels of the Yemen parcel bomb incident as Rep. Edward Markey and a colleague in the Senate, supported by some airline pilots unions, called for inspections of all shipments on cargo-only planes, as is required for cargo on passenger planes.
Freighters carry a lot more volume than passenger planes, especially bulk shipments that require separation of individual pieces to meet inspection requirements. Security experts and the business community condemn 100 percent inspection as ineffective and expensive.
The Department of Homeland Security has launched an effort to get more pre-departure, advance data from carriers that its computers can compare to risk criteria to identify suspicious packages that merit further scrutiny. But its approach is more nuanced than simply making the manifest due earlier. Under the law, airlines must electronically file their cargo lists and associated data four hours prior to arrival or at takeoff for nearby nations.
DHS officials say it would be difficult to get a lot of the flight data on the manifest any earlier. They're more interested in getting some of the shipment data that resides in the manifest up front.
That's because they don't want to wreck the air cargo industry in an attempt to protect it. In air cargo, especially the express consignment sector, time windows are so tight that to require all the information before departure would destroy the value proposition of air transport. Many manufacturers and other shippers often run packages to the freight dock right before the cutoff time. The entire network of express carriers is structured to handle last-minute tendering at full rates.
Plus, there are a lot of technical, legal and procedural protocols to implement that would actually make it possible to flag a shipment that caused an alarm. DHS probably should have been working on that system before, but it is focused on the job now and is asking all the right questions as it prepares to test the concept.
And much of the manifest data is useless for advance targeting.
But for politicians like Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the solution is plain as day: push back the deadline for filing the manifest.
A skeptical Levin repeatedly asked Bersin and Pistole about any practical challenges to moving up the manifest deadline, and neither of them could supply a cogent answer.
Their main point was that some small airlines around the world don't have adequate information technology systems to electronically file data to CBP.
Levin, who didn't seem to have much consideration for the realities of the business world, dismissed the notion that adding time to the manifest requirement would bring commerce to a standstill. He said it would only slow deliveries by several hours, which he submitted the public would accept in exchange for greater security.
The law enforcement officials didn't project a sense of confidence to Congress, which is what is needed to prevent lawmakers from filling the perceived void with feel-good security measures.
What they should have said is that a lot of the data isn't readily available from freight forwarders and shippers because they often don't know until late in the process which airline they plan to use. They could have pointed out that more work is required than just a time-change for submitting the manifest.
Bersin's inability to better explain the situation is baffling because in an interview with me in his office three days later he was very articulate describing the challenges associated with imposing a new security filing on industry. And he did an excellent job describing how industry and DHS are reshaping the way they view security.
Unless he spells things out point by point, lawmakers won't get the point.
ICAO addresses air cargo security
The International Civil Aviation Organization on Nov. 17 adopted more stringent air cargo security standards that are in line with the U.S. government's Certified Cargo Screening Program and the International Air Transport Association's Secure Freight initiative, which are designed to push screening up the supply chain to reduce lines at the airport.
The new guidelines call for more screening of cargo and mail by detection devices and better protection from tampering from the point of screening until loading on the plane.
Also included in the revision to the Convention on International Civil Aviation is the strengthening of provisions related to the deployment of security equipment, the security of air traffic service providers, training programs and instructor certification systems, and cyber threats.
Countries usually incorporate ICAO's non-binding guidelines into their aviation laws. The text of the document is not publicly available yet, but ICAO outlined some of the changes in a news release.
Meanwhile, the European Union on Dec. 2 unveiled its own plan to strengthen air cargo security, which will replace emergency measures put in place by individual members following the Yemen parcel bomb plot and another mail scare in Europe.
The European Commission said it will convene a working group to devise security measures for cargo from non-EU countries, with an emphasis on risk-based targeting and more advance information about shipments.
The group will identify criteria for assessing high-risk cargo and establish an audit process to evaluate security standards of airports outside the EU. Another goal is to develop a common security training program for air cargo.
Members will be encouraged to speed up implementation of the known shipper rule, which must be fully implemented by April 2013.
The commission said it will take steps to ensure quick sharing of threat information, incidents and emergency responses and develop a common threat-assessment capability.
It encouraged nations to quickly adopt the enhanced ICAO guidelines on air cargo security.
In late November, Germany revoked the licenses of three companies for failing to meet cargo security standards and issued warnings to 20 others, according to the Associated Press. The government didn't identify the firms.