GAO: TSA needs to verify air cargo screening levels
The Transportation Security Administration cannot yet verify its claim that it has successfully met the Feb. 1 congressional mandate to screen half of all air cargo on passenger aircraft, but is developing a system to do so, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Wednesday.
The law applies to the piece level, meaning that half the pieces in a multi-lot pallet must be checked.
To achieve the goal, the Homeland Security agency last October ordered airlines to screen all cargo placed on narrow-body planes, instituted a Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) under which shippers or freight consolidators screen cargo at their own facilities and started a pilot program for a dozen freight forwarders to test various screening technologies in 48 facilities serving major airports.
Results so far are based on anecdotal industry feedback, but TSA is working to collect data from private sector screening entities to make sure required screening levels are being met, the GAO said. Last month, the TSA told airlines and screening facilities to report on the number of shipments in which half and all pieces are screened. The agency is scheduled to begin receiving the first set of screening data this week and to issue a progress report by April.
In related moves, the TSA last month eliminated most exemptions on screening certain types of domestic cargo and required that air carriers ensure that half of cargo on all passenger aircraft across their fleets is screened.
The law requires that all air cargo on passenger planes by screened by August 2010.
The idea behind the CCSP program is to relieve airlines from the burden of inspecting everything at the airport, which many believe would create significant backlogs and missed flight connections. Shippers who join the program can avoid delays, and further opening and handling of their cargo that could lead to product damage, by packing their own boxes in secure areas, certifying with a sticker they've been checked, using tamper-evident tape and secure protocols for handing off the shipment to a trucker or freight forwarder. Freight forwarders can use physical search or technology to screen freight, but have to disassemble pallets or may open boxes to meet the piece-level screening requirement.
Another benefit of self-screening is that shippers and forwarders can continue to consolidate shipments, which results in reduced rates.
Many small freight forwarders say the program is cost prohibitive.
The GAO said it is difficult to know whether enough shippers and forwarders will volunteer for the CCSP program to take on the majority of screening by that date, as envisioned by TSA.
As of early March, TSA has certified 217 screening facilities, including 21 independent outsourced cargo screening facilities and 14 shipper facilities, said Douglas J. Brittin, TSA's air cargo manager, at a trade compliance conference in Anaheim, Calif., last week.
TSA estimates that its own ability to screen cargo with inspectors and canine teams will increase to about 6 percent of cargo volume by the 2010 deadline, up from 4 percent today. It is in the process of adding 48 explosives detection canine teams dedicated to air cargo to the 37 teams it already has in place at 20 major airports.
If upstream industry partners do not volunteer in sufficient quantities, 'air carriers or TSA may be required to screen more cargo than was projected,' the GAO said.
Under the technology demonstration, the participating warehouse facilities are using X-ray, explosives detection and explosives trace detection machines used in the passenger environment to see how they work in high-volume air cargo environments. The GAO said the TSA is providing up to $375,000 for each of the 48 facilities to purchase detection equipment. Not all facilities will receive that much because explosives trace detection machines — or swab testers — cost about $55,000. Last year, TSA said it had $12 million in seed money for the technology pilot.
Some forwarders not in the pilot complain that they are at a disadvantage by having to buy their own equipment or resort to airlines to do the work, and want the government to subsidize purchases for everyone.
Based on this and other testing, TSA will determine what technologies qualify for screening cargo after August 2010. Forwarders are worried that if they purchase equipment at their own expense now, the agency could change its mind about what is acceptable for use after that date.
The GAO said that simultaneous testing and deployment of technologies is not ideal, but that the TSA feels it has no other choice in order to meet the mandate.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that there is no technology available yet capable of screening full pallets or air cargo containers so that loads do not have to be broken down to the piece level. TSA does not expect to qualify such technology prior to the 2010 deadline, the GAO said.
The GAO also drew attention to the fact the small size of TSA's cargo inspection staff may hamper its ability to oversee what could potentially be thousands of facilities involved in doing screening. The agency is still recruiting to fill vacancies and plans to conduct a staffing study this year to determine if it has enough manpower to make sure private companies are meeting TSA screening requirements.
The TSA has also said it plans to use third-party validation services to conduct reviews of facilities seeking to join the program and for periodic follow-up checks.
As for inbound, international shipments, the TSA does not plan to meet the 100 percent screening deadline because of the slow process of harmonizing its air cargo security standards with those of other nations and some types of commodity exemptions, the GAO said. The congressional watchdog agency has questioned whether exempting certain types of cargo from screening poses a vulnerability.
Under existing rules, air carriers operating international flights are required to inspect half of non-exempt inbound cargo. The TSA assumes that this condition is being met, but as with the domestic program it is not collecting screening data from the airlines to verify that the inspection levels are being achieved.
TSA officials are reluctant to impose a hard screening standard that other countries may not be able to meet right away because that could substantially reduce or eliminate cargo transport from certain locations and raise the cost of transport. Officials have said they intend to work with Customs and Border Protection on a system to better identify risk on import air shipments, but no timeframe on when that will be completed has been released so far.
The GAO said that the TSA only has nine cargo inspectors for inbound cargo compared to 475 who do that job for domestic shipments even though imports account for 40 percent of cargo carried on passenger aircraft. ' Eric Kulisch