The discovery of sophisticated explosive devices in packages that were bound for the U.S. highlights significant gaps in cargo screening both domestically and overseas, adding to pressure for security improvements.
A United Parcel Service cargo plane lands at Cologne/Bonn airport in Germany on Sunday
The Obama administration is expected to propose a plan soon to expand cargo inspections, an official said Sunday, declining to offer details. The Transportation Security Administration is heading the effort.
"Friday's incidents will certainly be a wake-up call for the industry and governments around the world to take it a step further,'' said Steven Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks heightened public debate over cargo safeguards, commercial aviation has made only limited progress combating the dangers and implementing solutions globally, according to industry and government officials.
"We had concerns about these issues" of cargo screening and inspections years before the latest scare, said Bill McReynolds, a commercial pilot and security expert for the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilot union, partly because of the greater emphasis on passenger-airline security. But "knee-jerk reactions are never good," he added. Mr. McReynolds said rushing to require close to 100% inspections of cargo shipments now could adversely impact overnight shipping companies.
Instead, security experts and pilot union leaders have been advocating more of a targeted, risk-based approach aimed at profiling shipments likely to pose the greatest threat, based on country of origin or identity of the shipper—as passenger carriers are doing to focus on shifting threats. Two weeks ago, the TSA reconvened industry-labor study groups to develop new recommendations for applying such methods to the cargo arena.
So far, the most dramatic progress in enhancing security has come on passenger planes. Since August, all cargo shipped on U.S. passenger aircraft has been screened. Roughly three-quarters of the cargo that currently arrives in the U.S. each day in the bellies of foreign passenger jets is screened or inspected prior to departure for explosives, according to government and industry estimates. Some of the rest may get only perfunctory checks of paperwork.
But when it comes to all-cargo aircraft, the overall percentage of shipments screened before they touch down in the U.S. may be as low as 50%, according to some industry estimates. For flights between overseas destinations, where cargo airlines and package-delivery companies are enjoying their strongest growth, the portion of shipments that ends up getting screened is substantially lower.
Transfers between airlines at foreign fields create additional potential hazards. According to some pilot estimates, for example, less than one out of every 10 shipments may be directly screened when traveling through big hubs such as Cologne or Dubai—major trans-shipment points for international cargo bound for North America and other regions. Estimates vary because U.S. federal security officials haven't publicly disclosed detailed numbers, and because frequently, cargo carriers have been reluctant to share specifics even with their own pilot-union leaders.
Reasons for the current security gaps range from shortages of government funds to technology constraints to the reluctance of some cargo companies to shoulder a larger share of the burden.
Freight-forwarding firms, which provide the backbone of the $100 billion-a-year air-freight market, are among the most important but least-publicized parts of the security chain.
Screening and security safeguards in many countries where packages originate, according to industry officials, vary widely and often depend less on government oversight and more on the willingness of third-party cargo forwarding firms to implement changes. Persuading some forwarders to make essential investments is a major challenge, according to pilots and security experts.
Audits by government inspectors in recent years have revealed gaps in the system. One big one: There is no approved technology to screen cargo once it is loaded on the pallets used for shipments in wide-body aircraft. Those pallets hold 75% of belly cargo.
Explosives trace-detection equipment also isn't foolproof, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general in September, which warned it had "identified vulnerabilities'' in the cargo-screening procedures on passenger airplanes. It made five confidential recommendations to the TSA.
Florida Rep. John Mica, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, called late Friday for more TSA presence overseas.
A TSA effort to develop more-sophisticated risk profiles for overnight packages appears to have stalled, according to a number of pilots, due partly to concerns among cargo firms that the threshold for inspections might be set so low that overnight deliveries would be delayed.
U.S. passenger airlines said Sunday that they are complying with government security procedures and that Friday's incidents hadn't affected their operations. Cargo carriers said they have stringent screening measures in place. None provided details, citing security concerns.
A spokesman for FedEx Corp., which ships seven million packages daily around the world, said every package "goes through some kind of security review" and that the cargo carrier worked with the FBI in Dubai to intersect a dangerous package Friday before it went on a FedEx aircraft.
"Our level of attention and detail was always high. Clearly we're more focused and will remain so for the foreseeable future," added Maury Lane, the FedEx spokesman.
Norman Black, a spokesman for United Parcel Service Inc., which had a separate incident Friday involving an explosive device intercepted in England, said UPS has "always worked closely with authorities on security issues and continues to do so now."
Differences in air-cargo security across the Atlantic are greater than those in passenger security, according to air-security specialists, who say the U.S. has several times as many cargo inspectors as Europe.
EU airlines largely are complying with the U.S. rule requiring 100% screening of cargo on passenger airplanes, these people say. But cargo that arrives in the EU and is redirected to other countries outside the EU and U.S. isn't re-screened. For example, cargo can arrive in Europe from Pakistan and go onto a flight to Argentina without being checked.
The latest incidents may prompt the EU to deepen its cargo-screening procedures, said Brian Simpson, chairman of the European Parliament's Transport and Tourism Committee, which plays a key role in shaping EU aviation policy.
"We've concentrated so much on passenger security," said Mr. Simpson. "You could argue we've taken our eye off the ball on freight, which we now have to put right."