Air cargo security has come far since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks turned the tools of transportation and trade into weapons of mass destruction. Until 9/11, the lone form of security in the U.S. was an unregulated program in which airlines vetted shippers to ensure they and their products were legitimate. The so-called known shipper program was enhanced following 9/11 and remains in effect. Today, a shipper must be known to the carrier in order to load cargo aboard a passenger flight leaving the U.S. In addition, the cargo must still be screened in one form or another.
Over the past two decades, security has evolved into a multilayered process in keeping with regulators’ desire to build more redundancies, and protections, into the regime. The geographic perimeter of surveillance has been expanded and the chain of custody pushed as far upstream as possible with the building of Certified Cargo Screening Facilities. These are regulated by the federal government and designed to screen goods before they arrive at the airport and become the responsibility of the airlines, which faced flight schedule pressures and were often forced to conduct screening in one communal facility on the grounds of each airport.
In mid-2018, the Air Cargo Advance Screening (ACAS) program, which encouraged airlines serving the U.S. from foreign points to provide shipment information to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) before the goods were boarded at origin, was made mandatory. This was the legacy of a 2010 incident when two shipments of printers from Yemen, each containing sophisticated explosives, were intercepted by authorities before the bombs could be detonated over U.S. cities.
Today, there are multiple screening methods, from manual searches to X-ray techniques to bomb-sniffing dogs. The latter are in high demand — albeit in short supply — because they can quickly identify explosives inside containers which might be too cumbersome for X-ray machines or manual labor to examine.
Demand for K-9 screening services spiked leading up to the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) July 1 deadline for screening all exports moving on all-cargo flights. Some customers were able to secure dogs months before the mandate’s effective date. However, others waited until the deadline was right on top of them before they took action, and didn’t have dogs when the mandate arrived.
All cargo, all screening, all the time
The freighter screening mandate is a sign of the security challenges to come. Though the industry had time to prepare, compliance still proved unwieldy for some, especially as all-cargo services have been inundated with demand after the COVID-19 pandemic severely curtailed international passenger flights whose bellies carry about half the world’s air cargo.
The screening burden has fallen on the all-cargo carriers and the service providers known as ground handlers that shuttle containers around airport property. Already chockablock with business, airlines have struggled to keep up with screening work. Applicants for ground-handling jobs face lengthy security-clearance background checks, said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Air Forwarders Association, which represents freight forwarders. As a result, they aren’t hired in a timely manner or they end up looking for work elsewhere, he said.
Arthur G. Arway, a longtime transport and logistics security executive, said the mandate has “screwed up everything.” According to Arway, goods have “piled up floor-to-ceiling” at warehouses, where they often sit for days or weeks. This is especially problematic for airfreight because the mode carries time-sensitive or high-value goods that need to move fast.
Flight delays are costly for the shipper, consignee and the airline. According to a May 2019 study by Science Direct, a unit of the Dutch publishing house Elsevier, cargo flight delays related to late deliveries were as much as $38,000 per flight-hour, much higher than the costs related to delayed passengers.
What’s more, unlike passenger airlines which during normal times might have hundreds if not thousands of daily flights, all-cargo frequencies are limited; in some lanes, there may be just one flight a day. This doesn’t leave much room for flexibility if an aircraft has to push off without cargo that hasn’t been screened.
Arway said the airlines don’t like shouldering the screening duties. However, they accept the burden because their asset is at risk, he said. Airlines are “pushing back like crazy” to get TSA to engage as many participants as possible, he said.
Stephen A. Alterman, executive director of the Cargo Airline Association, said his members are “muddling through” the transition period. “I sent an email a couple of days ago asking for all the bad news,” Alterman said in a Thursday phone interview. “I didn’t get anything back.” Alterman surmised that his members’ problems are manageable because they don’t have large numbers of frequencies to deal with.
Around mid-June, the TSA came up with an alternate plan of developing secure facilities where big users like e-commerce fulfillment companies could avoid the screening requirement. The initiative raised questions over whether big firms like Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) were being given preferential treatment. The plan has also proved to be logistically unworkable, said Alterman, who did not offer details because of its confidential nature. Michael White, who runs his own cargo security consultancy and was president of Cargo Network Services, a unit of the International Air Transport Association representing U.S. air cargo interests, said he’s unaware of any company that’s signed up for the program.
Attempts to reach John Beckius, TSA’s head of cargo security, proved unsuccessful. In a FreightWaves virtual event last November, Beckius called the new regulations a “game changer” for industry. “We always want to optimize and enhance industry’s abilities in the cargo screening realm,” he said. “Whether it’s assisting industry with testing techniques internally, or better methods for screening itself, even training, we want to look at ways to increase proficiency out there to make sure we’re doing the best we can to find the potential threats.”
Each country works from a security template created by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and tailors a program to its needs. Many countries have implemented a “known consignor” initiative where their governments regulate air shippers but exempt their cargo from screening because they have already met the most stringent security requirements. According to Alterman, such a proposal would be a non-starter in the U.S. because every business that ships by air would be regulated. The Air Forwarders Association wants TSA to consider the program because it would allow the agency to certify and audit shippers for strict compliance. However, Fried said he isn’t holding his breath about it becoming law.
The lack of a global standard is an obstacle to enhanced security, but it’s not a make-or-break one, said Shawn C. Beddows, who spent 17 years at U.S. Customs and its successor agency CBP, and headed cargo security for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) before joining the private sector last year as vice president-global services for CT Strategies, a security consulting firm. For example, countries use much of the same X-ray and related equipment that has been approved by ICAO, Beddows said. Beyond a certain degree of uniformity, it would be unrealistic to expect each country to read from the same security page because their needs, wishes, ideologies and policies are so different, he said.
E-commerce the next big challenge
Perhaps the biggest structural change ahead for air cargo security is the rapid emergence and proliferation of international e-commerce, with almost all of the intercontinental components of that business moving by air. The transactional nature of e-commerce, with random buyers and sellers engaging thousands of miles apart, renders obsolete the relationship-driven philosophy behind the 25-year-old U.S. known shipper program, said White. Customers’ expectations for one- to two-day deliveries will pose additional challenges for security regimes, experts said.
In an email, Beddows said that efforts to balance secure shipments and e-commerce flows should “focus on (the) upstream application of security measures by trusted entities, and (the) implementation of mutual recognition agreements” which mitigate the need to repeatedly provide data elements that satisfy customs authorities and inspectors.
In this new and very different environment, the ability to organize and optimize large amounts of data is the only way to ensure that appropriate security protocols are in place, White said. However, TSA lacks the technological expertise to extract value from the data, and doesn’t use the data it gathers. By contrast, CBP is a heavy user of data, has strong IT capabilities in house, and has been working with cargo a lot longer than the 19-year-old TSA, White said. In response to congressional inquiries to possibly scrap the known-shipper program, TSA officials said they would leave it as it is, he said.
White went so far as to argue that TSA shouldn’t be managing cargo security, and that those functions should fully migrate to CBP. As it stands, the agencies’ systems don’t interact with each other, and the agencies themselves don’t communicate with each other, he said. The latter is an eerie reminder of a key takeaway from the 9/11 Commission report, which laid part of the blame for the catastrophe on the government’s inability to share relevant information.
“Why do we have two agencies on top of each other looking at the same stuff?” White said.