Carrying out major recommendations of the independent 9/11 Commission both the US Senate and House of Representatives last month overwhelmingly passedlegislation, which increases spending on aviation, port and border security.
The legislation, which has meanwhile been presented to US President George W. Bush for signing, includes a compromise bill, which within three years, enforces passenger-airline cargo to go through security screening before an aircraft can take off. Similarly, it has set a fi ve-year goal of scanning all container ships for nuclear devices before they leave foreign ports. The irony is that neither the House nor theSenate bill specifi es a technology or method to accomplish that goal.
The three-year phase in period is clearly a compromise as the 9/11 Commission and many representatives and senators had insisted the screening should be introduced immediately. The 9/11 Commission in 2004 issued 41 sweeping recommendationscovering domestic security, intelligence gathering and foreign policy.
As was expected, outspoken critic in the absence of passenger-airline cargo screening, US Rep. Edward Markey (D) claimed victory in his four-year battle tohave all cargo go through security screening.
“Passenger shoes have to be taken off (before fl ights) but the cargo in planes isn’t screened,” said Markey of the current system. With the expected signing of the legislation, federal inspectors will now have to treat commercial cargo as they do passengers and their luggage – using a combination of x-ray machines, chemical- sniffi ng dogs and other measures to make sure terrorists aren’t trying to sneak aboard explosives via cargo holds.
Unions for airline pilots and fl ight attendants have hailed the bill and even the US-based Air Transport Association, which represents all major US carriers, which had previously expressed misgivings about inspecting all commercial cargo on passenger- airlines, said that, after review of the bill, it would support the new system.
The bill “prudently” creates a “multilayered” security system that won’t harm the free-fl ow of commerce, James C. May, ATA’s president said in a statement. Still, critics (including the White House) say that the technology isn’t there and, even if it was, installing screening equipment in more than 800 foreign ports and airports is unworkable. They argue that the current system of targeting high-risk cargo for inspection, further implementing the “Known Shipper” programme, pre-checking air waybills and manifests of container ships in foreign airports and ports, and for instance, installing radiation detectors in US ports, is more practical and less likely to impede international cargo traffic.
The bottom line is that what government agencies and security companies offer today to screen cargo, are variations of off-the-shelf baggage-screening equipment to screen cargo. At best there is the promise that new equipment will be down the road. In fact, there is new equipment in development, but it is many years away from being put to the test in an operational environment.
An extension of the Known Shipper programme, which could involve tougher screening methods of cross-border shippers and carriers by the Transportation Security Administration, could develop into a Certifi ed Shipper Programme and result in an expedited system for cargo originating from shipper’s facilities, after having met specifi c and comprehensive security standards as identifi ed by the TSA. Whatever the objections to or support for the security measures embedded in the new legislation, one thing is becoming abundantly clear and that is that total air cargo screening is coming nearer and nearer, whether it will impede or disrupt cargo traffic, or not.