Push on for air cargo screening

Bomb threat prompts Markey to try again

A new law requires screening of cargo carried on passenger planes. A new law requires screening of cargo carried on passenger planes.
(Kevork Djansezian/ Getty Images)
By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / November 2, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

US Representative Edward J. Markey is vowing to seek legislation that would require screening of all packages on cargo planes in the United States for explosives — a move that could lead to shipping delays and higher costs for consumers.

In light of last week’s thwarted terrorist attempt in which two Chicago-bound packages containing explosives were shipped from Yemen on cargo and passenger planes, the Malden Democrat said he plans to introduce the legislation when Congress reconvenes after the elections. Markey wrote the bill that became a law requiring all cargo on domestic and international passenger planes flying into the United States to be screened starting Aug. 1.

“Al Qaeda has sent a warning to the United States; they are saying if you do not shut down our ability to put explosives on a cargo plane, then the United States should expect an attack to be launched in that fashion,’’ Markey said.

Markey included the screening in the first bill, but said opposition from the air freight industry prevented Congress from including cargo planes at the time.

Indeed, according to the Airforwarders Association, an alliance of air carriers, cargo airlines, and affiliated businesses in the global transportation community, the Aug. 1 law requiring 100 percent screening of cargo on passenger planes will require 9,000 new federal employees at a cost of over $700 million in the first year alone, and could drive shippers “to the point of near bankruptcy.’’

Currently, passenger plane cargo is screened at airports and at Transportation Security Administration-certified facilities, both of which use radiation, chemical trace detection, dogs, and physical searches to check for explosive devices. The TSA now screens all cargo on domestic passenger planes, but told Markey that it is screening only 80 percent of cargo on inbound overseas flights and won’t be able to get to 100 percent for two more years.

“I think that should be accelerated, especially after what has happened in the last week,’’ Markey said.

But screening all the cargo that passes through the United States would cost companies billions of dollars and significantly slow the shipping process, said Steve Howard, vice president at CertiPath, a company focused on physical access security for airports. These added costs could be passed along to the consumer.

“It will be very painful,’’ said Howard, who added that cargo security should go above and beyond screening with secondary methods such as replacing aluminum shipping containers with blast-resistant Kevlar ones.

Jerry Ellig, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who has studied Homeland Security regulations, cautioned against tighter restrictions in reaction to one incident.

“If we’re going to do something new, we ought to make sure we’re doing it in response to something that is a widespread and systemic problem, rather than, ‘Oh, here’s a story about something bad that happened, we need a new system to screen 100 percent of cargo.’ We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that these packages were caught.’’

Retailers also advise against any quick, extreme measures.

“If you have a knee-jerk reaction that requires 100 percent screening internationally — something that has proved to be very difficult with domestic passenger planes — the concern is you would end up shutting down commerce,’’ said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group in Washington, D.C. “It could result in extensive delays and could have a significant cost increase that could put people out of business.’’

Alison Paul, vice chairman and US retail practice leader for Deloitte LLP, said additional security measures would not likely result in any major shortages at retailers this holiday season because most merchants already have products on the shelves or at distribution centers. But extra safeguards could slow down orders for customized electronics that are manufactured in Asia and often shipped overnight.

Screening every scrap of cargo isn’t the answer, said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, espionage, and intelligence studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Intelligence is.

“What it really all comes down to is what happened over the weekend,’’ he said. “Was it caught through technology? No. Was it caught by a dog? No. Was it caught through people opening packages and finding an explosive? No. It was through an intelligence tip.’’

The TSA declined to offer specifics about enhanced screening procedures following the bombing attempt but said yesterday that, in conjunction with Customs and Border Protection, it “immediately took additional measures to enhance existing protocols for screening inbound cargo, including grounding packages originating from Yemen destined for the United States and deploying a team of inspectors to assist the government of Yemen with their cargo screening procedures.’’

Local TSA officials were unavailable for comment.

The security level at Logan International Airport remains at orange, or high, as it has been since August 2006. “Passengers should continue to expect a mix of security techniques,’’ the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, said in a statement.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at