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Air Cargo Screening Mandate Begins

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The air cargo screening mandate went into effect August 1, three years after a bill was enacted based the recommendations of the independent 9/11 Commission to require screening of 100 percent of air cargo carried on passenger planes.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has stated it has reached the goal of screening 100 percent of cargo on domestic and international outbound flights, but will not be able to screen cargo coming into the United States from foreign countries.

According to the TSA, more than 50 percent of cargo screening now takes place before the materials reach the airport, as part of the Certified Cargo Screening Program, in which freight forwarders and shippers pre-screen cargo ahead of time.

Currently, there are 920 screening facilities certified by TSA, in which inspectors ensure the shippers meet certain criteria before the cargo arrives at the airport. They must do the inspections at a piece level, using technologies like X-ray, explosive detection canines, and physical searches.

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For cargo that shows up at the airport unscreened, it becomes the airline’s responsibility to screen it before they get on the plane. If the cargo isn’t screened, it doesn’t fly.

Transportation Security Administration LogoThe TSA has admitted that screening all inbound cargo from international flights has proved to be a challenge. It is currently working with airlines and with individual countries to set up certified cargo screenings, but notes that each country has different air cargo security programs, which may not align with those required by TSA .

An estimated 2.8 billion pounds of air cargo arrives in the United States every year on passenger aircraft from 94 different countries.

According to a study released June 30, 2010 from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a Congressional watchdog group, TSA officials estimated that 55 percent of inbound cargo is being screened and that 65 percent will be screened by this month.

Both the GAO and Congressman, Ed Markey (D-MA), who has been fighting for this legislation since 2006, have expressed concern over the TSA’s screening efforts.

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To create the assessment report, the GAO conducted site visits to several U.S. commercial airport that process domestic and inbound air cargo. Inspectors interviewed local TSA officials, airport management officials, and representatives from seven air carriers, 24 freight forwarders, three shippers, and two handling agents to obtain their views on TSA’s system to implement the screening mandate.

TSA - Great Day to FlyThe resulting report, entitled, “Aviation Security: Progress Made but Actions Needed to Address Challenges in Meeting the Air Cargo Screening Mandate,” reveals, “TSA has made progress in meeting the 9/11 Commission Act air cargo screening mandate as it applies to domestic cargo, and has taken several key steps in this effort … However, TSA faces several challenges in fully developing and implementing a system to screen 100 percent of domestic air cargo, including those related to industry participation and technology.”

Rep. Markey’s office issued a statement that aligned with the GAO’s findings: “While progress has been made toward screening all air cargo carried on passenger planes, many challenges still remain,” says Markey. “If I were to grade the progress to date, I would give it an incomplete. According to the report I requested from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), less than two-thirds of all inbound cargo coming into our country from overseas is screened. You wouldn’t want to fly on a plane where less than two thirds of all passengers are screened while the rest walk around the metal detectors. The same logic should apply to cargo.”

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Rep. Markey’s efforts toward this legislation date back to August 2006, just after the foiled London passenger airliner bombing plot and the 2006 rail attacks in Mumbai, when he sent a letter urging then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to institute 100 percent inspection of all cargo on passenger planes and inspection of container ship cargo before it sets sail for U.S. ports.

Air Cargo TransportationHe wrote, “Today I’m urging the Bush Administration to take the steps needed to protect Americans from two potential cargo catastrophes. Secretary Chertoff should plug the remaining cargo security loopholes so that terrorists can’t smuggle their explosives and nuclear weapons into this country, to stop relying on inadequate paperwork checks instead of sound security practices, and to stop catering to the interests of industry – and to start to take real steps to protect Americans.”

Passed August 3, 2007, the new bill, Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 mandated the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to establish a system to physically screen 50 percent of cargo on passenger aircraft—including the domestic and inbound flights of foreign and U.S. passenger operations—by February 2009, and 100 percent of such cargo by August 2010.

However, at the halfway mark, both the GAO and Rep. Markey expressed serious concerns over the TSA’s implementation of its air cargo screening requirement.

Today, the DHS maintains that it has reached its goals for domestic and international outbound content, but says it may take years before there is protocol in place to screen all inbound cargo on passenger flights originating in foreign countries.

By Sarika Chawla for

Related Links: 100% Air Cargo Screening –, Air Cargo –, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress on Air Cargo Security overview, GAO Report to Congressional Requesters, GAO Report to the Chairman – House Committee on Homeland Security

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