The vulnerability of air cargo carriage

THE interception by security officials in the UK and Dubai of two explosive devices uplifted in Yemen and bound for the United States has accentuated the vulnerability of air cargo transportation. European and US aviation security experts are meeting to take stock of current measures and surveillance systems.

The risk exposure of air cargo is not unknown. In May, the Canadian government for one announced a robust five-year plan – costing C$95.7 million (S$123 million) – to “ensure that air cargo shipments are resilient from the threat of terrorism”. However, faced with limited resources, overseers of air transportation across the globe are often constrained in their exercise of priorities.

Ever since 911, a plethora of measures have been introduced to tighten security for travel on passenger flights, but only in August this year did the US make it mandatory for 100 per cent of cargo loaded on to these flights be screened for explosives.

Checks applied to freighters are comparatively less stringent. Even the technology used is less sophisticated than that for baggage. Requirements are largely based on systemized trust. For example, the British government uses a system of “known consignor” whereby the cargo of audited companies that are certified as trusted shippers may not be subject to the same level of checks as that of uncertified shippers.

Clearly, practices vary from country to country in a wide spectrum of multi-layered to patchy or nil screening. Some experts think this is the problem – the absence of a universal screening standard. However, the difficulty lies in how some regions and their airlines are more at risk than others. Yet one cannot overlook how danger will lurk in the most unlikely places.

Therein lies the real problem – the element of surprise. Governments face the challenge of being steps ahead of would-be arsonists, as recognized by the Untied States Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano who said: “The threats of terrorism we face are serious and evolving, and these security measures reflect our commitment to using current intelligence to stay ahead of adversaries.”

Recognizably many preventive measures are reactionary to specific incidents, as in the recent American ban on cargo carriage from Yemen and Somalia. Drawing lessons from history should help prevent copycat acts, but from shoes to printer cartridges, the industry’s headache is preempting what next would be employed to hide explosives.

The question of adequate security checks is unfortunately often tempered by cost concerns of airlines and shippers, such as costly flight delays and the rising costs of yet more checks. Shippers are concerned too about idle warehousing costs and time-loss when speed means money.

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) has warned against knee-jerk response to the Yemeni incidents as it could harm the air travel industry, which handles over a third of the world’s goods traded internationally. Iata chief Giovanni Bisignani said: “Effective solutions are not developed unilaterally or in haste.”

However, the current mood of panic is likely to press for more checks, as is already seen in how passenger security screening in the US has become more invasive. International Pilots Association spokesman Brian Gaudet has shot an early salvo: “We believe that current standards in air cargo screening are inadequate.”

Governments can certainly cooperate on two fronts. First, the developments of new and more effective technology that will make the carriage of freight safe without slowing down the speed of processing.

Second, the sharing of intelligence all the way up the process or supply chain. Technology alone is not enough. It was a tip-off by Saudi Arabia intelligence that the explosives in printer cartridges uplifted in Yemen were intercepted. Spokesman Mansour al-Turki of the Saudi interior ministry said: “Saudi Arabia believes in the importance of promptly exchanging security information of intelligence nature as a fundamental tool in combating terrorism.”

Yet any system is only as good as its handlers. The industry is plagued by poor service and the lack of professionalism of security staff. Many agents appear to be inadequately trained. This variable human factor continues to loom large as the industry’s Achilles’ heel.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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