TOPICS > World

Safe Cargo?

April 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Of the millions of tons of cargo that are shipped by air worldwide, about half goes in the belly of passenger planes; the rest in all-cargo planes. Unlike passengers and their luggage, since Sept. 11, 2001, most of the cargo is still not inspected, even though the Government Accounting Office, in a 2002 report, found major vulnerabilities in cargo handling. Cited were inadequate background checks of cargo handlers and the possible tampering with cargo all along its route. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of the Transportation Committee is alarmed by what she calls a “Trojan horse.”

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I’m very concerned that we have secured the top of the aircraft, done a really good job of that, but we haven’t done practically anything in the cargo area. We haven’t even done criminal background check requirements on people who handle it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Congressman Ed Markey says the airlines are making the same excuse for not screening cargo as they did when they resisted screening luggage.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY: They said that the lines at the airports would go from here to Timbuktu. But once the government mandated that they had to do it, they got it done, and it works very efficiently right now. Well, the same kind of “it’s impossible” argument is being made by the very same people about screening the cargo, which goes onto the very same plane and sits right next to the very same bags which they said it was impossible to screen after Sept. 11.

SPENCER MICHELS: For their part, the airlines admit the threat, but say it is being addressed aggressively by them and the Transportation Security Administration. James May is president of the Air Transport Association, representing passenger airlines that also carry cargo.

JAMES MAY: I think people should be assured that we have the finest levels of security that we’ve ever had on passenger aircraft.

SPENCER MICHELS: Is that enough?

JAMES MAY: It’s never going to be enough. We’re always going to look for ways to enhance that security; we’re never going to rest.

SPENCER MICHELS: The TSA recently began recruiting cargo pilots who want to be trained with weapons, after Congress passed a law allowing them, like passenger plane pilots, to carry guns. And Homeland Security’s Asa Hutchinson, who oversees airline security, insists it is getting better.

ASA HUTCHINSON: It is substantially improved from what it was even a year ago. For the first time we’re requiring inspection of some of the cargo that go onto the craft, whether it’s a passenger aircraft or whether it is an all-cargo aircraft.

SPENCER MICHELS: But neither the airlines nor the TSA will say specifically what is being inspected and how. Although it has been improved since 9/11, the basic air cargo security program hasn’t changed since the 1990s, when the known shipper program was instituted. A secure TSA Web site contains a list of approved customers, “known shippers,” whose employees have undergone background checks. A freight forwarder like Kamino International Transport has access to the site. Much air cargo goes through freight forwarders, which pick up boxes or get them delivered to their warehouses, load containers, arrange with the airlines to have them shipped, and, finally, deliver them to the air cargo facilities at the airport, where the airlines load them into planes. Bill Kuhse is station manager for Kamino in South San Francisco. So if I came to you and I said, “I’ve got 100 boxes I want to ship to Germany,” and you didn’t know me, what would happen?

BILL KUHSE: I would probably accept your shipment, and then we would do a background check on your company and follow a few other procedures that I shouldn’t state, and then we would be able to handle your shipment probably only on a freighter aircraft, not on a passenger airplane.

SPENCER MICHELS: The “known shipper” program is flawed, according to Congressman Markey.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Why should passengers in the plane have to take off their shoes, have their bags checked even though they’re known trippers who frequently fly on that airline, but someone showing up with a truck and boxes that are unscreened, say, “here’s a piece of paper; you know the name of my company; put all these boxes on the plane”? It is absolutely absurd.

SPENCER MICHELS: There’s also virtually no inspection of cargo at the freight forwarder, although the events of 9/11 have put Kuhse on the lookout for unusual shipments.

BILL KUHSE: Well, it certainly raised everyone’s awareness of security. As far as our daily operations go, it hasn’t had a major effect. We’ve had to retrain employees to meet TSA’s requirements, and pretty much it’s been a thing of awareness.

SPENCER MICHELS: Markey has introduced legislation that would require that every cargo package on passenger planes be inspected, just like luggage. But that would cause big problems, say airline and cargo executives, including Kamino’s Kuhse. This is shrink-wrapped.


SPENCER MICHELS: It would be difficult to inspect all this, or not?

BILL KUHSE: Well, it wouldn’t be that difficult; it would take time. It would take a lot of time. You’d have to cut the straps, pull the wrapping off and theoretically you’d want to put it all back together.

SPENCER MICHELS: The TSA agrees that inspecting all cargo would slow down the system and cost billions of dollars. Officials favor just targeting suspect cargo. Members of the Cargo Airlines Association, which represents all cargo carriers like Fed Ex, fear that too much inspection could have a disastrous ripple effect. Steve Alterman is the group’s president.

STEVE ALTERMAN: The effect would be basically to put the industry out of business as we know it today. If we were ever forced to open every box, we could never get the freight moving as needed. And so the impact is not on the airline only. It certainly has an impact on the airline. The impact is on the entire world economy.

SPENCER MICHELS: Airline security consultant Douglas Laird says that most of the techniques that Markey’s plan would use have shortcomings.

SPOKESMAN: Go to work!

SPENCER MICHELS: Trained dogs, like these at a U.S. mail facility, are already being employed to sniff for explosives. But Laird says the dogs can be fooled.

DOUGLAS LAIRD: If you build a device, and if you cleanse it so that there is no vapor escaping and there are no particles on the outside of the item, then a dog can’t find it.

SPENCER MICHELS: X-rays of the kind in use at airport carry-on security points are another option.

DOUGLAS LAIRD: It’s good for finding humans hiding within containers. It’s not very good for finding a very small amount of explosives, and it takes very little in the amount of explosives — I’m talking about size and quantity — to bring down an aircraft.

SPENCER MICHELS: Private companies like Savi International are developing computerized locking systems that can track cargo and determine if a container has been opened. Another security measure, computer tomography, already is being used on checked luggage. It works like a CAT scan, using waves of energy to look inside solid objects. But at the present time, Laird and others say, it doesn’t work for big objects. The TSA admits current technology is insufficient and is spending $55 million this year on research.

SPENCER MICHELS: Can you develop a technology that essentially will be almost 100 percent effective?

ASA HUTCHINSON: Absolutely. I believe that our private sector can develop technologies that will do this type of inspection and even for the cargo that goes onto the aircraft that’s larger than the passenger bags. But it takes a huge investment. And so once you determine what the solution is, then you’ve got to figure out who’s going to pay for that.

SPENCER MICHELS: The airlines are clear: The government should pay. Up to 10 percent of American passenger airlines’ revenue comes from belly cargo, and they oppose higher costs.

JAMES MAY: So far to date we’ve spent pushing $10 billion — both the government and ourselves — on security for airplanes. We’ve spent on our own well north of $4 billion. But make no mistake. We believe strongly that it is the role of the federal government to assume these extraordinary expenses related to what amounts to national security.

SPENCER MICHELS: Markey claims that effective technology, although expensive, is being used overseas, but he charges that the Bush administration is putting politics over safety.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY: The Bush administration has sided with the airline industry, has sided with the cargo industry, and has sided with the fiscal conservative Republicans in Congress, who don’t want to spend the money in order to insure that every one of these passenger planes is secure.

ASA HUTCHINSON: We’re not bowing to anyone. Our job is homeland security. We take that very seriously. And our job is not to stop planes from flying. Our job is not to stop cargo from moving. Our mandate is security in a way that’s consistent with a legitimate flow of commerce.

SPENCER MICHELS: Republican Senator Hutchison also doesn’t think Markey’s 100 percent inspection plan is feasible, and, along with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has introduced a security bill to beef up the known shipper program. So far, neither Senator Hutchison’s nor Representative Markey’s cargo security bill has passed Congress. Even without legislation, the TSA says it can and will improve the system.