Shipping Industry Balks at TSA's Approach to Cargo Security on Passenger Airplanes

By Matthew Harwood

With the 2010 deadline to screen all cargo on passenger planes fast approaching, witnesses from the aviation and shipping sectors criticized the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) approach yesterday at a subcommittee hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Under the 9-11 Act passed last August, TSA must scan 50 percent of all passenger aircraft "belly cargo" by February 2009 and 100 percent by August 2010. Nearly 12 million pounds of cargo move through the air daily on passenger airplanes.

The linchpin of TSA's strategy to meet the requirements is its Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), according to John Sammon, an assistant administrator at TSA. Under the voluntary program, TSA will certify facilities within the cargo supply chain to screen cargo before its delivery to the appropriate passenger aircraft. These facilities should include shippers, manufacturers, warehousing entities, distributors, and third-party logistics companies.

CCSP, however, faces significant challenges, testified Cathleen A. Berrick, director of homeland security and justice issues for the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

First, the TSA has not adequately assessed cargo scanning technologies, which has riled industry stakeholders. Nevertheless, Berrick said, TSA will allow certified facilities to use uncertified technologies such as explosive trace detection, explosive detection systems (EDS), and X-ray machines to screen cargo.

John Meenan, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Air Transport Association, said TSA must  provide industry operators a "qualified products list" before they proceed with implementation.

Instead, TSA will provide a "candidate technology list," which James Tuttle of the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate called "analogous to the qualified product list."

Nevertheless, Berrick said, "Without all of the results of its pilot programs or a time frame for their completion... TSA cannot be assured that the technologies the agency plans to approve for screening cargo as part of the CCSP are effective."

Thus, much of the shipping industry, especially small- and middle-sized businesses, is reluctant to purchase expensive screening equipment and find out later it doesn't meet security standards. Cargo screening technology costs, such as EDS, can range from $150,000 to $500,000 per facility, witnesses said.

Since CCSP is unfunded, it effectively excludes a large portion of the air freight sector, said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association. "If this happens, it will put enormous pressure on the airlines and airports to screen potentially as much as 40 percent of the cargo put on passenger planes in the U.S.," creating large bottlenecks that would slow the supply chain, Fried said.

TSA has included only large companies in the CCSP's pilot program to ensure it meets next year's 2009 deadline, further angering industry stakeholders.

"To incentivize their participation, TSA will subsidize those companies and underwrite a major portion of their overhead," Cindy Allen of the National Customs Broker and Forwarders Association, Inc., said. "Small companies, all of whom have been excluded from the pilot, will receive no such benefit."

TSA has pledged to reimburse certified facilities up to $375,000 for initial screening equipment purchases, but after that, maintenance, training, and new equipment costs will be the responsibility of the certified facility, according to GAO.

TSA also faces a short supply of CCSP compliance inspectors to certify screening facilities. The agency anticipates it will request an additional 150 Transportation Security Inspectors (TSIs) for fiscal year to add to its current roster of 450.

Berrick said the TSA doesn't know how many TSIs it needs because it hasn't performed a formal assessment. "Without such as assessment," she said, "TSA may not be able to ensure that entities involved in the CCSP are meeting TSA requirements to screen and secure cargo."

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