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American Shipper

U.S. Customs delays air cargo security rulemaking again

The Advanced Air Cargo Screening pilot program has been analyzing pre-departure shipment data from voluntary participants for over five years, but U.S. Customs said it wants to iron out details before promulgating a rule for the entire air cargo industry.

   Making it mandatory for airlines and freight forwarders to file advanced information about cargo loaded onto aircraft bound for the United States seemed like a foregone conclusion several years ago, but U.S. Customs late last month announced plans to extend a pilot program testing the concept for another year.
   Industry officials say the delay is simply due to the bureaucracy involving new regulations and a desire to get the rule right the first time so as not to burden companies engaged in international trade, especially since there are so many details to work out over how the government and private sector will interact with foreign parties overseas to ensure compliance.
   “It’s a bit more complex than anyone realized going in,” Douglas Brittin, secretary general of The International Air Cargo Association, said in an interview. “A lot more needs to be tested before you can write all the details and guidelines.”
   The Air Cargo Advanced Screening (ACAS) pilot was launched with the help of express carriers in early 2011 after a package bomb originating in Yemen was discovered on a cargo plane. Under the demonstration, transportation providers voluntarily pre-file seven data elements about their consignments as early as possible prior to departure so Customs and Border Protection can run them through threat-assessment software and order any necessary inspections. Under current rules, shipment data is included in the automated manifest filed by the carrier with information about the aircraft and the flight. But the manifest is not filed until after departure in most cases, preventing security officials from detecting potential devices smuggled aboard to destroy a plane in mid-air. 
   ACAS is designed to split out the consignment information, which is usually available much sooner, so it can undergo risk profiling.
   Customs officials two years ago completed a draft rule based on lessons from ACAS and the success of the pilot led many industry officials to conclude that the practice would quickly be instituted for all shipments.
   The results of the ACAS pilot will help determine the relevant data elements, the data transmission methods, the time frame within which data must be submitted to permit CBP to effectively target, protocols for sending “do not load” messages to carriers for suspicious shipments, and how inspection referrals in foreign airports will be handled. Officials say they want to implement rules that have the least possible impact on business operations.
   Challenges include the lack of compatibility between many air carrier and forwarder IT systems, inaccurate or incomplete manifest information, wide variations in the timing of available data, different risk-management approaches among customs and homeland security regulators in many nations, and limited testing of forwarder capabilities, especially outside of the United States. Inspection protocols among nations are not uniform and how to treat companies in trusted shipper programs also has to be determined.
   Within the U.S. government, CBP and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) appear to have resolved several issues regarding how to implement a rule across the board. TSA has authority for the security of aircraft and requires inspection of all cargo carried on passenger aircraft flying in and out of U.S. airports. The TSA has had to reconcile its inspection regime with CBP’s risk-based targeting approach.
   CBP has extended the pilot several times since October 2012. The agency said the extensions have allowed the number of participants from all parts of the air cargo industry to grow so it can better understand how to tailor regulations for each sector. New pilot participants will not be accepted during the new extension.
   The extension will also provide pilot participants with the additional opportunity to adjust and test business procedures and operations in preparation for the forthcoming rulemaking, CBP said.
   Brittin said ACAS was simpler when it only involved express carriers, who operate closed networks in which they control every aspect of a shipment from pick up to delivery, including managing shipment data with sophisticated IT systems, tracking packages and freight, and communicating with the customer. When the model was expanded to include all-cargo carriers, passenger airlines, and freight forwarders getting all the data became more of a challenge because the information resides with different parties, who have different levels of technology capability and must transfer the data up the chain to the carriers or figure out how to directly connect with CBP’s system. In many cases, airlines outsource terminal operations, such as loading and unloading aircraft, to ground handlers, adding another layer of complexity to the data exchange.
   TIACA, the International Air Transport Association, and other groups are working with the International Civil Aviation Organization and the World Customs Organization to develop a standardized global approach to advanced screening of air cargo. The European Union and Canada are the only other governments at the moment actively seeking to adopt the security concept.
   The air cargo industry for two years has asked governments to slow down the rulemaking process until a harmonized approach is developed.
   CBP’s delay “is the right approach,” Brittin said. “Yeah, it’s taking a long time, but we in industry would prefer that all aspects of it be thoroughly tested and done properly before CBP or TSA security regulations are implemented.”
   That approach is preferable than the one taken by the EU, which promulgated in May rules for advance submission of air cargo data even though officials have admitted it will take another three to four years to flesh out the details and properly implement the system, he added.
   Industry officials are pushing for a central risk targeting organization within the EU so that shipments don’t have to assessed by each country, especially for flights that stop in more than one member nation.
   “We can’t afford to have three different systems and mitigation protocols. Until we get more global standards, we don’t want anyone stepping forward,” Brittin said.
   The EU and Canada are expected to modify their pre-loading security programs based on ACAS results.
   “The key to all this is keeping everyone in the loop about what is being learned in the pilot process because we don’t want people going down a rabbit hole putting in IT systems and everything else” before the best approach has been determined, Brittin said.
   The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU adds another unknown element to the process. It is unclear whether the UK will participate in the EU’s advance cargo screening program, as non-EU members Switzerland and Norway do. Failure to participate could limit air cargo trade with Britain, which is a big cargo hub, because carriers would be reluctant to follow two different security regimes, according to Brittin.
   CBP’s decision to delay an ACAS rulemaking was also influenced by a realization that getting the go-ahead from the White House would take a long time, Mike Mullen, executive director of the Express Association of America, said. The Office of Management and Budget normally takes three months to review proposed regulations, with an emphasis on their economic impact. Officials are expected to avoid issuing new rules in the last stages of the presidential campaign during the fall, so CBP opted to just take an additional year to improve the rule and avoid the political season, Mullen speculated.
   “Our hope is that the regulation will look just like the pilot because the pilot works for us, it works for the government. If the procedures are the same as the pilot, I think the trade will be overwhelmingly supportive,” Mullen said.

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