The air cargo industry needs to come up with a credible security regime if it is to avoid more stringent screening legislation from the US Congress, Rob Bonner, the former commissioner of US Customs warned the TIACA Executive Conference in Cologne in mid-March.
Bonner, held his post from 10 September 2001 until 2005, and was responsible for putting in place advanced cargo manifesting, the C-TPAT (Customs-Trade Partnership against Terrorism) programme which now has some 8,000 companies as members, and an automated threat assessment system.
He told delegates that members of Congress still had “serious reservations” about the Known Shipper programme, and there was “a real danger” that Congress would try and impose 100 percent physical screening on air cargo.
An attack on a commercial aircraft would also have “signifi cant consequences” for air cargo with the security regime in its present state, Bonner said, possibly sparking knee-jerk reactions from the US authorities.
By contrast he reckoned that the system in place for maritime freight, which includes C-TPAT, inspections of shipments before they leave the port of origin, and tamper-proof seals on containers, was probably robust enough not to be called into question after a terrorist incident.
Bonner said that a credible system that would reassure Congress could be built from the current Known Shipper programme, but would need to include proper security audits of shipper premises, independent inspections to verify that standards were being complied with, and an automated system to target inspections on high risk shipments, which he reckoned would be a “relatively small percentage” of the total.
He conceded that the European Authorised Economic Agent programme probably had more of these elements than the US Known Shipper programme, but said the standards could also come from an initiative within the industry: “What air cargo needs to do is demonstrate that it has a minimum level of standards globally.”
On the topic of inspections, he said that US Customs and Border Protection had recruited 200 validators for the C-TPAT programme who had verifi ed at least half of the participants, including overseas premises. “The rest know they might be inspected at any time and so they have a reason to comply.”
Bonner, who is now a private lawyer and no longer has any US government role, skirted around the question of why the US Transportation Security Administration, which has had responsibility for air cargo security since 9/11, had not copied the Customs scheme which is so effective for maritime cargo.
He conceded that the the continuing debate on air cargo security in the US Congress had been “exacerbated” by the division of responsibility between the two agencies, but said a proposal to adopt the Container Security Initiative and C-TPAT for air cargo had been rejected in 2003 in favour of leaving the responsibility for preinspection of cargo before departureto the TSA.
Interestingly, he also claimed that one reason that Customs had been able to move so quickly and effectively was that it was not bound by Congressional mandate, as the TSA is, and had been able to consult quietly with the industry about what would make aneffective security regime.
Bonner stressed that whereas on the day after 9/11, his key priority as commissioner of Customs had become security, backlogs of cargo at US borders and key automotive factories shutting down for lack of parts had soon persuaded him that keeping trade fl owing was equally important. “I realised early on that these two goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive,”he said.
With air accounting for 21 percent of US imports by volume – or an even larger percentage once crude oil imports were eliminated – that was equally valid for the air cargo industry. Only a layered and targetted approach to security could secure the twin goals for cargo, he added. “In my view, 100 percent screening of air cargo would defeat the whole purpose of shipping cargo by air. It would be extremelydestructive and not necessary.”
Bonner also had a warning for countries who saw this as a mainly US problem, pointing out that Al Qaeda had targetted countries right across the world, and had even planned to bomb trains crossing the Cologne railway bridge right outside the conferencehall in July 2006.
“It is in the interests of all of you in this hall to have a good security system,” he told delegates. “It is essential to protect your assets, your people and the future of your business. You have to look on cargo security like insurance, as a necessary part of doing business. If there was another incident, it would cost all of you a tremendous amount of money.”
This was seconded by Tony Ellerbeck, director of Aviation Security Limited, a UK-based consultancy which advises the UK Department of Transport, who appeared on a panel discussion following Bonner’s speech. “It is not a matter of if there is another incident, but when,” he warned. “Security has not so far been part of the production process in air cargo, and it needs to be.”
As for who might take the lead in drawing up a new security regime for cargo, there seemed little agreement in the conference hall. Bonner suggested TIACA should take a role. Jack Boisen, new chairman of TIACA, who as cargo boss of Continental has been particularly interested in security issues, responded that the association was looking at having more global discussions on the topic. – Peter Conway