There are hopeful signs that a bill, which calls for intensified screening of aircargo on passenger aircraft heading toward the US, which already passed by theDemocratic-controlled Congress last month, is unlikely to survive in the Senate.
The provisions were part of a House bill that was promoted as the first legislationto pass in Congress this year with the approval meant to signal new leadership’spriorities in pushing through security recommendations of the commission thatinvestigated the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The House bill, which did not specify whether the Transportation SecurityAdministration (TSA) or airlines would inspect cargo, would require the cargoto get the same screening as luggage by October 2009.
However, according to the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in theHouse of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, two key provisionsof the House bill are unlikely to make it through the Senate. "With the exceptionof ports and cargo screening," he said, "everything else should go through."
The Senate Aviation Subcommittee plans to propose its own aviation-security billthat is likely to be less far-reaching on cargo than the House bill. Subcommittee chairmanJay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wants to give TSA flexibility in improving cargo securityand will "carefully weigh" how a new law affects airlines and the economy.
That would be good news for the US air cargo industry, which is still hoping fora more measured approach to the security issue than the often onerous proposalsby the Democrats and some Republicans, who claim that the provisions will closea major hole in US security.
While the US airline and forwarding industry wholeheartedly supports theuse of the appropriate screening technology to help secure the supply chain, itis adamant that the cargo screening process should be quick and reliable, andshould be operated by qualified staff.
Advocates for inspecting cargo on passenger planes, such as Rep. Ed Markey, DMass,claim that technology could do the job without disrupting commerce. But theproblem is that for appropriate cargo screening on a scale demanded by Congress,there is no current equipment available that could carry out that massive job.
Passenger planes carry about 6 billion pounds of cargo a year, typically goodsthat need fast shipment such as seafood and auto parts. Typically, these items arecarried with passenger luggage in the belly-holds. Only a small portion of suchcargo is checked by bomb-detection machines or dogs.
Shortly after the passing of the bill in Congress last month, the US air cargoindustry received some unexpected support in its objections to the physical screeningof all air cargo shipments on passenger planes.
In his first public comments on the bill, Transportation Security Administration(TSA) chief, Kip Hawley said inspecting all passenger-plane cargo would add "avery small, incremental benefit for security" and he added that requiring the cargoinspection by late 2009 "is not feasible without impeding the legitimate flow of commerce and imposing an unreasonable cost on the government."
Hawley’s comments were echoed by Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association in the US, who said the introduction of impractical security measures "would slow down the flow of commerce." And a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents major US airlines, said that airlines might cancel certain passenger routes if those flights can no longer carry cargo. That’s because cargo shipments provide a large portion of a flight’s revenue, and in many cases a route may not be profitable without cargo.
But try to explain that simple fact to people like Representative Markey.