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GAO Skeptical TSA Can Screen 100 Percent of Domestic Cargo by August Deadline

By Matthew Harwood

With less than a month to go, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is skeptical that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will achieve 100 percent screening of all cargo loaded onto passenger aircraft at U.S. airports by the August 1 deadline set in law.

In a 61-page report released last week (.pdf) , the GAO credited the TSA with making significant progress toward achieving the goal of 100 percent screening of domestic cargo shipped on board domestic and outbound passenger planes but still believes the agency will come up short.

TSA faces several challenges in developing and implementing a system to screen 100 percent of domestic air cargo, and it is questionable, based on reported screening rates, whether 100 percent of such cargo will be screened by August 2010 without impeding the flow of commerce. For example, shipper participation in the voluntary screening program has been lower than targeted by TSA. In addition, TSA has not completed a staffing study to determine the number of inspectors needed to oversee the screening program. Because it is unclear how many industry stakeholders will join the program, TSA could benefit from establishing milestones to complete a staffing study to help ensure that it has the resources it needs under different scenarios. Moreover, TSA faces technology challenges that could affect its ability to meet the screening mandate. Among these, there is no technology approved by TSA to screen large pallets or containers of cargo, which suggests the need for alternative approaches to screening such cargo. TSA also does not verify the self-reported data submitted by screening participants. Several of these challenges suggest the need for a contingency plan, in case the agency’s current initiatives are not successful in meeting the mandate without impeding the flow of commerce. However, TSA has not developed such a plan. Addressing these issues could better position TSA to meet the mandate.

The skepticism isn't unwarranted: passenger airlines moves over 9 million pounds of domestic air cargo each day, according to TSA estimates. Nevertheless, TSA spokesman James Fotenos said the GAO's fears are unfounded. "TSA will ensure that all air cargo transported on passenger aircraft at US airports is screened on August 1," he said in an e-mail to Security Management.

(For more on TSA and the air cargo industry's efforts to meet the August deadline, see my feature article "Will Air Freight Screening Plans Fly?" from the June 2010 print issue of Security Management.)

The 9-11 Commission Act of 2007 required that TSA screen 100 percent of all cargo—domestic and inbound—by August 2010. Already TSA has backed away from the international component of the law, stating the deadline was impossible to meet because the agency must first harmonize American cargo security standards with foreign nations. During a congressional hearing last Wednesday, TSA deputy administrator John Sammon told lawmakers that the White House does not expect to meet the international mandate until 2013.

On the domestic side, companies within the air cargo supply chain are scrambling to adjust to the fast approaching deadline. According to DC Velocity magazine, shippers that do not screen their own cargo or have a freight forwarder do it will have to tender their cargo at the airlines much earlier than usual and pay increased shipping prices. Take American Airlines for instance. "Dave Brooks, president of American Airlines' Cargo Division, said the airline will require customers to tender their freight six hours before the aircraft's scheduled departure if they expect American to screen the goods and still meet the customers' delivery commitments. American's current cutoff time is four hours before departure," DC Velocity reports. "In addition, American will double its fees after Aug. 1 for screening cargo before it is loaded, Brooks said."

As of right now, the law stands: all cargo destined for the belly of a domestic flight must be screened at the piece level or it will not get on its intended flight.

"We're enforcing the deadline as of August 1," said Fotenos—23 days and counting.


Photo by pigpen 71/Flickr

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