DHS begins advance data pilot for air cargo
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is starting this week a pilot program with a couple of express air carriers to collect advance shipment data as part of an effort to tighten security for cargo-only planes, an official said Tuesday.
Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration have been working closely with the air cargo industry for the past six weeks following the recent terrorist plot to take down U.S.-bound aircraft using explosive devices concealed in packages.
The agencies aim to set up a system for carriers to provide a subset of the air cargo manifest earlier in the process so the data can be analyzed by computer and high-risk shipments sorted out for inspection prior to loading onto an aircraft. Under current law, the complete manifest is required to be electronically filed with CBP four hours prior to touchdown in the United States.
Top officials at both agencies last month indicated they expected to launch demonstration programs for collecting advance air shipment data by the end of the year to help policymakers make informed decisions about new security rules.
A second trial program involving freight forwarders and their air transport providers is expected to start in early January, Douglas Brittin, TSA's general manager for air cargo, said during a global supply chain competitiveness forum at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
The tests are intended 'to determine how fast we can get information, what those information sets may look like, and how quickly we can turn that around,' he said. The last point refers to procedures and communication systems that must be established for notifying carriers to hold a suspicious package and how it will be inspected by local authorities.
Brittin said the pilot programs would be evaluated in 30-day increments until enough lessons are learned about how to obtain the advance data on a regular basis without slowing down time-sensitive air cargo shipments.
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The pilots are moving on two tracks because express carriers have customer and shipment information almost immediately after a parcel is dropped off at one of their retail centers or terminals. Integrated carriers such as FedEx and UPS quickly enter the information into their highly automated tracking systems and directly transmit the manifest, which also includes flight information, through CBP's Automated Manifest System. Shippers typically use freight forwarders to move their heavy freight, but the information doesn't get into their systems until the cargo is delivered to passenger or all-cargo airlines, with many shipments arriving one hour before the flight departs.
The trick in developing an advance-filing rule is to figure out a way not to delay shipments in a consolidated load when one of them is flagged for inspection.
If the government asks for a package to be set aside 'then the airline is burdened with going out and finding that piece and delaying everything perhaps. And that's really not the environment we want to do.
'So our preference is to work with the industry on the second pilot to determine what the freight forwarding community can feed into the system, how quickly they can they get that in as they're collecting the various shipments through their process,' Brittin said.
TSA and CBP have been collaborating for more than a year on how to get air shipment data sooner than normal, but the effort accelerated after the late October bombing plot was foiled, he said.
A CBP official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said the initial talks were aimed at familiarizing TSA with the type of data the border agency gets through its Automated Manifest System and how it could be used to address TSA concerns about explosives onboard aircraft. Manifest data is run through an automated targeting system to compare shipments against risk profiles and current intelligence, but any anomalies aren't checked until the planes arrive in the United States.
CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, speaking at the same event, said his agency's national targeting center most likely would have identified the Yemen parcel-bomb packages for primary inspection at John F. Kennedy International Airport after departing their last overseas connection, but that would have been 'too late.'
Quality advance data would help TSA ensure cargo is secure on inbound passenger planes as well because the agency has not been able to achieve the Aug. 1 mandate to screen every piece of cargo as has been accomplished by industry for flights originating at U.S. airports, Brittin said.
At least 12 million pounds of cargo per day are uplifted in the United States, most of which is exported on widebody jets. To prevent long screening lines at airport cargo terminals, which do not have the space to unpack and spread out individual cartons for screening, TSA created the Certified Cargo Screening Program so shippers can create secure shipments at origin, or at their freight forwarder facility, without having pre-built containers disassembled and screened by the airlines.
Aircraft manufacturer Boeing has facilities certified to screen outbound cargo because it is obligated under its airplane delivery contracts to supply spare parts to airlines within 24 hours anywhere in the world. 'We can't afford to have those shipments delayed at screening or getting on the first available aircraft,' said Ken Konigsmark, Boeings senior manager for supply chain and aviation security compliance.
More than 52 percent of the cargo loaded on passenger planes is now screened before it arrives at the airport.
TSA, however, doesn't have the regulatory reach to instruct shippers and freight forwarders in other countries to do their own screening. It can only regulate carriers that fly into the United States. Each year 3.5 billion pounds of cargo enter the country in the belly holds of passenger planes.
TSA has been gradually ratcheting up the amount of cargo airlines must screen themselves — about two-thirds of total volume — but doesn't want to push too fast because airlines face the same logistical challenges at foreign airports as they do in the United States.
TSA officials have told Congress they believe they can get to 100 percent screening on international inbound flights by the first half of 2013, but Brittin said the agency is optimistic it can achieve that goal sooner than 2013.
Meanwhile, TSA is working with foreign governments to encourage them to develop strong supply chain security practices that the United States can recognize as meeting its own standards. The goal is for other countries to adopt programs similar to the CCSP program. The International Civil Aviation Organization last month adopted guidelines that call for more upstream screening of cargo, which is expected to help move more countries to adopt such measures. The process takes time because U.S. authorities need to check whether a security program that looks good on paper actually is effective in practice and commensurate with U.S. requirements, Brittin explained.
Countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and the European Union already have strong air cargo security programs in place and the TSA is already working to vet them.
Interest has perked up in many other countries to have TSA review their national cargo security programs since the Yemen parcel bomb plot, Brittin said.
'We didn't have that many in the queue before,' he told reporters after his address. Countries now want their programs reviewed to prevent a mid-air attack and to align themselves with the U.S. program, he added.
'Everybody's eyes were opened by the incident to the importance of air cargo security,' he said.
Brittin said TSA wants to help develop better technologies for screening air containers and multicommodity pallets to make the process more efficient for the air cargo industry. Airlines and their customers use explosive trace detection, X-ray and physical searches to inspect shipments. The X-ray systems can't screen anything larger than a shipper-built, 40-inch-by-48-inch-by-65-inch pallet of homogenous cargo. ' Eric Kulisch